By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian parliament will soon start discussing preparations for another referendum on amending the country’s post-Soviet constitution that has long been criticized for giving disproportionate powers to the president, its deputy speaker said on Tuesday.
The Armenian authorities have promised the Council of Europe to hold the referendum some time before June 2005 after failing to muster sufficient public support for President Robert Kocharian’s package of draft amendments in a vote last May.
Its official results showed that only about 46 percent of some 1.2 million Armenians who took part in the referendum, held simultaneously with parliamentary elections, voted for the proposed changes. To pass, they needed the backing of the majority of referendum participants that would make up at least one third of 2.33 million eligible voters.
The Armenian opposition, which rejected Kocharian’s draft amendments, alleged that popular support for them was even lower than the official figures indicated.
According to deputy speaker Tigran Torosian, the National Assembly will soon form a “working group” tasked with renewing debate on constitutional reform, one of the conditions for Armenia’s admission into the Council of Europe three years ago. He indicated that the pro-presidential legislature is unlikely to seek significant changes in Kocharian’s constitutional package.
“I don’t think that those changes are particularly bad. We don’t necessarily need to enact a new constitution because after all the existing constitution has played a substantial positive role,” Torosian told RFE/RL during a conference in Yerevan co-sponsored by the Armenian parliament and the Council of Europe’s so-called Venice Commission monitoring legal reforms in Armenia.
Armenia’s main opposition groups maintain that the amendments in question envisage largely symbolical curbs on the sweeping presidential powers and would have in fact given Kocharian greater constitutional authority if he had secured a desired referendum outcome. Some of them proposed last year an alternative basic law that would transform Armenia into a parliamentary republic and tried unsuccessfully to put it on the May referendum along with Kocharian’s amendments. One of its authors, Shavarsh Kocharian, said the opposition draft will be resubmitted to lawmakers when the issue is discussed this year.
It is not yet clear whether President Kocharian himself will be proposing or supporting any major changes in his constitutional package. His top constitutional lawyer, Armen Harutiunian, was vague on the subject as he spoke to RFE/RL on the sidelines of the conference.
Some observers believe that Kocharian will try to earn his draft amendments greater legitimacy by having the three pro-presidential parties making up his coalition cabinet formally co-author it.