By Karine Kalantarian and Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia marked on Monday the most low-key of its public holidays dedicated to its post-Soviet constitution touted as an important instrument of political stability by the government but criticized as undemocratic by the opposition. Once again ordinary Armenians displayed little awareness of the occasion.
In a written address to the nation, President Robert Kocharian said the passage of the constitution on July 5, 1995 had a “historic significance.” “The Constitution has become a strong impetus for fundamental reforms in the Armenian legislation, as well as for reinforcement of the people's power and establishment of the supremacy of law,” he said.
“The existing Constitution has proven its vitality on many occasions. Its resolute implementation guarantees the rule of law and stability in the country,” Kocharian added.
The view was echoed by Rafik Petrosian, chairman of the Armenian parliament’s committee on legal affairs. “My respect for this small brochure keeps growing,” he said. “The experience shows that this constitution is living up to expectations.”
But other prominent lawyers sounded a note of caution. “In my view, our society has not yet grasped the significance of the constitution,” said Gagik Ghazinian, dean of the Law Department at Yerevan State University. “We usually remember the constitution in times of crisis. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem to exist. You can breach, bypass it.”
There was ample evidence of this mood in the streets of Yerevan. Asked what day is July 5, one woman replied: “It’s Monday.”
There was also widespread cynicism about the holiday’s significance, with many respondents arguing that the rule of law is just as problematic in Armenia as it was under the previous, Soviet-era constitution. “I don’t know what’s written in our constitution,” said one elderly man. “There is no constitution in this country, it’s a dictatorship. We can’t make use of our rights.”
“All laws are for them,” agreed another disgruntled resident. “See what happened to our parks, they have turned them into cafes and restaurants.”
The constitution was enacted under independent Armenia’s first President Levon Ter-Petrosian through a controversial referendum which his opponents, especially those who are at odds with the current regime as well, say was rigged. It guarantees a full range of human rights and civil liberties that can be restricted for “the protection of state and public security, public order, public health and morality, and the rights, freedoms, honor and reputation of others.”
The basic law also gives sweeping powers to the president of the republic, including the right to dissolve the parliament at will and appoint and sack virtually all judges. The authorities pledged to carry out constitutional reform as part of conditions for Armenia’s accession to the Council of Europe in 2001. The Kocharian administration subsequently drafted a package of constitutional amendments which it said would curtail the presidential authority and strengthen the judicial and legislative branches.
However, the amendments were rejected at a referendum in May 2003 after being dismissed as cosmetic and “tricky” by the opposition. The authorities have promised the Council of Europe to hold another constitutional referendum by June 2005. Kocharian effectively reaffirmed these plans in his statement.
“Within our society has matured the necessity for improvement and bringing the Constitution in line with the contemporary needs,” the statement says.
But Felix Tokhian, a member of Armenia’s Constitutional Court, believes that Kocharian’s draft amendments are unlikely to muster sufficient public support unless they are endorsed by the mainstream opposition. He called on Monday for the planned reform to be put on hold pending the resolution of the ongoing bitter confrontation between the government and the opposition.
“The most important thing is that a necessary level of political consensus has not yet been created and we risk repeating the precedent of 2003,” Tokhian told RFE/RL.
For ordinary citizens, meanwhile, the most important thing is to see the existing laws respected and justly enforced by their rulers. As one woman put it, “If the law is not enforced, then what’s the point of having it? Unfortunately, those who write laws are often the ones who break them first.”