By Emil Danielyan and Astghik Bedevian
The top decision-making body of the Council of Europe urged Armenians on Monday to vote for President Robert Kocharian’s constitutional amendments at next month’s referendum, saying that they are “vital” for Armenia’s democratic future.
“The referendum to be held on 27 November on this reform will be vital for Armenia,” Diogo Freitas do Amaral, Portugal’s foreign minister and the chairman of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, said in a statement.
“By turning out to vote during the referendum, the people of Armenia will indeed be deciding on changes of fundamental importance for their future,” he said, adding that the proposed changes would shore up Armenia’s weak judiciary and create a “more balanced distribution of power between the executive and the legislative branches.”
Amaral emphasized the fact that Kocharian’s constitutional package has been endorsed by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on legal reform which has been actively involved in the reform process. The head of the commission, Gianni Buquicchio, called for a “yes” vote at the referendum during a recent visit to Yerevan.
The European Union and the United States have also expressed support for the draft amendments. Western officials say that as well as curbing sweeping powers vested in the Armenian presidency, the proposed reform would facilitate Armenia’s integration into pan-European structures.
A similar statement was adopted on Monday at a conference of an organization representing various-level Armenian judges that are presently appointed and can be dismissed by the president. Under the proposed reform, the president would continue to appoint them but would have less control over a body that nominates judges.
“The constitutional draft is close to being a perfect legal document,” stated the chairman of the Union of Judges, Hovannes Manukian.
The one-day gathering was also attended by Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who is believed to exercise considerable influence on Armenian courts notorious for their corruption and lack of independence. “If our country is to maintain the existing pace of growth, we must make great efforts to have an established judicial system in Armenia,” Harutiunian said in his address to nearly two hundred judges.
Armenia’s leading opposition groups, meanwhile, remain adamant in rejecting the amendments as insignificant and irrelevant to the country’s democratization. In a joint statement last month, 17 opposition parties said their enactment would only “legitimize the regime and prolong its life.” They pledged to work together in trying to scuttle the referendum.
But the opposition leaders disagree on whether they should urge Armenians to boycott the referendum or vote against the draft amendments. The National Unity Party (AMK) of Artashes Geghamian announced last week that it prefers the latter option, while the second opposition force represented in parliament, the Artarutyun bloc, has yet to formulate a common position on the issue.
One of the nine parties aligned in the bloc, the National Democratic Union (AZhM), decided at the weekend to urge supporters not to take part in the upcoming referendum. The AZhM’s prominent leader, Vazgen Manukian, argued earlier that a low voter turnout would make it more difficult for the authorities to rig the vote.
The AZhM said in a statement that it will deploy observers in all 1,865 polling stations across Armenia in an effort to prevent vote falsifications. The party also pledged to step up its “propaganda struggle” against Kocharian’s constitutional changes.