By Armen Zakarian in Strasbourg and Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian authorities will put their package of constitutional amendments to a referendum in late July or early August, a senior member of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) said late Monday.
French lawmaker Georges Colombier told a PACE session in Strasbourg that he received such assurances from Armenian members of the 46-nation assembly.
Reform of the Armenian constitution, widely criticized vesting disproportionate powers in the presidency, was one of the conditions for Yerevan’s admission into the Council of Europe in January 2001. A package of amendments drafted by President Robert Kocharian failed to win sufficient popular support at a referendum in May 2003 and the Armenian authorities have promised another vote.
In a resolution last September, the PACE urged Yerevan to hold it in June at the latest. However, the authorities are increasingly unlikely to meet that deadline. The assembly’s governing Bureau decided to include the issue on the agenda of its spring session. However, the motion fell short of the required two-thirds majority during a PACE vote on Monday.
Speaking ahead of the vote, Colombier, who is one of the PACE’s two Armenia rapporteurs, urged colleagues not to debate the issue for now. He said he and legal experts from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission visit Yerevan next month to hold final discussions with the authorities on the issue. Colombier’s calls were backed by pro-government members of the Armenian delegation in Strasbourg.
In a report last December, the Venice Commission criticized the preliminary version of Kocharian’s revised amendments and called for "more significant amendments" that would curtail the sweeping presidential powers. Kocharian and leaders of his three-party governing coalition have since been making additional changes that have still not been made public. The process has taken much longer than was initially expected.
“The drafts will be finally ready on Tuesday or Wednesday,” one of the coalition leaders, Tigran Torosian, told RFE/RL. He said the Armenian parliament will open debates on the issue early next month.
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said last week that the authorities are now trying to take into account all of the Venice Commission recommendations. Torosian did not confirm this, though.
Armenia’s two main opposition groups announced last January that they will be ready to endorse Kocharian’s constitutional reform if the authorities accept three of those recommendations. Those would empower the parliament to endorse prime-ministerial candidates nominated by the president, seriously limit the latter's controversial authority to appoint judges, and make the mayor of Yerevan an elected official. Kocharian and his allies effectively rejected the proposed deal at the time.
Opposition leaders say the presidential camp now seems prepared to embrace those changes to avoid embarrassment in Strasbourg. “In my view, this is just a ploy that has nothing to do with real democracy,” said Victor Dallakian of the Artarutyun alliance.
According to Dallakian, Artarutyun will urge Armenians to reject Kocharian’s package whether or not it includes the three amendments backed by the opposition. “If the people reject that constitution, it will mean a vote of no confidence in the unelected president and political forces supporting him,” he said.
But Artashes Geghamian of the National Unity Party (AMK), the other major opposition force, was less categorical. “If these three proposals are accepted the National Unity Party will definitely take part in constitutional debates,” he told RFE/RL.