By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian parliament began on Wednesday debating amendments to the country’s constitution which were put forward by President Robert Kocharian and his governing coalition and will likely be put to a referendum this summer. The National Assembly is widely expected to endorse them in the first reading this month.
The constitutional package which lawmakers began debating is a revised version of the draft amendments unveiled by Kocharian last November. Experts from the Council of Europe welcomed it as a step in the right direction but said "more significant amendments" are needed for putting in place an effective system of checks and balances between the government branches in Armenia.
But as it turned out on Wednesday, Kocharian and the three pro-presidential parties making up the parliament majority have made only minor changes in their draft. Under the proposed changes, the Armenian president would continue to appoint the prime minister and the mayor of Yerevan without the parliament’s endorsement. Furthermore, he would be empowered to dissolve the National Assembly and call fresh elections if it votes no confidence in his governments twice in two months.
The so-called Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, a body monitoring legislative reform in the organization’s member countries, suggested in a report last December that the Armenian legislature be given the authority to endorse or reject prime-ministerial candidates nominated by the president. It also said that Yerevan, which is home to least one third of the country’s population, should have an elected mayor.
The Armenian opposition has voiced its support for the constitutional changes suggested by the Venice Commission. One of its leaders, Shavarsh Kocharian of the Artarutyun bloc, said the authorities’ reluctance to embrace them makes opposition support of the constitutional reform impossible.
A group of Venice Commission experts is due to arrive in Yerevan next month to discuss the issue with the authorities before the constitutional amendments undergo parliamentary debates in the second and third readings.
In a resolution adopted last September, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) gave Yerevan until June to hold the repeatedly delayed constitutional referendum. Armenian officials reportedly told PACE leaders last week that the vote will likely take place in late July or early August.
Under the revised amendments, the Armenian constitution would retain a clause preventing Kocharian from seeking a third five-year term in office in 2008. The Armenian leader and his allies have said that they have no intention to abolish the restriction.