By Armen Zakarian
The Armenian parliament overwhelmingly approved on Wednesday a controversial package of draft amendments to the constitution which President Robert Kocharian and his governing coalition plan to put on a referendum later this year.
The proposed amendments were endorsed National Assembly in the first reading and will undergo further parliamentary discussions before their final approval expected next month.
The constitutional package which lawmakers began debating on May 4 is a slightly 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.
Its preliminary approval coincided with the start of a fact-finding mission to Yerevan by a Council of Europe team monitoring the fulfillment of Armenia’s commitments to the Strasbourg-based organization. Constitutional reform was one of those commitments.
One of the two co-chairs of the monitoring group, Jerzy Jaskiernia, said the “presidential version” of the constitutional reform is still at odds with some of the key recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.
The commission 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.
However, none of that has been incorporated into Kocharian’s revised draft. A group of Venice Commission experts is due to arrive in Yerevan next month to discuss the issue with the authorities.
Jaskiernia could not say when the Armenian authorities plan to hold the promised referendum. “This is the question we are raising here because in the Council of Europe there was an impression [left by Armenian officials] that the referendum could held even on July 5,” he told RFE/RL.
The other co-chair of the monitoring group, Georges Colombier, said earlier that Yerevan has assured Strasbourg that the vote will take place in late July or early August.
Jaskiernia said the Council of Europe team also discussed other issues related to political reform in Armenia during their meetings with government officials and opposition leaders on Wednesday. He said the delegation looked in particular into ways of ending the Armenian opposition’s long-running boycott of parliament sessions.
“They again asked for clarifications regarding our boycott,” confirmed Victor Dallakian, a senior member of the opposition Artarutyun alliance. “We told them that it will continue because our demands to the authorities, which were backed by the Council of Europe, have not been met.”
The leadership of another major opposition group, the National Unity Party (AMK), slammed Jaskiernia in the presence of his Council of Europe colleagues, saying that his activities have been counterproductive for Armenia’s democratization. One of the AMK leaders, Aleksan Karapetian, claimed that the party has found it even more difficult to access government-controlled television channels ever since Jaskiernia’s previous trip to Yerevan.
Jaskiernia has long been accused by the opposition of being too lenient toward the Armenian authorities. The Polish parliamentarian came under fire in 2003 when the pro-Kocharian leadership of the Armenian parliament controversially financed the publication of an Armenian-language version of his book.
Some opposition leaders denounced the sponsorship as a “bribe.” But Jaskiernia denied any political motives behind it.