By Ruzanna Khachatrian
President Robert Kocharian and his leading allies were meeting late Monday to discuss harsh criticism of their draft amendments to Armenia’s constitution which has been voiced by a key Council of Europe body.
The so-called Venice Commission, which monitors legislative reform in the human rights organization’s member states, expressed on Friday its “deep dissatisfaction” with the latest version of those amendments. It warned that the Armenian authorities should put more significant curbs on Kocharian’s sweeping powers if they want to forge closer links with Europe.
“The members of the Venice Commission's Working Group on constitutional reform in Armenia expressed their deep dissatisfaction with this text, as most of the Commission's comments have not been taken into consideration,” the commission said in a statement.
The statement quoted one of the members of the group, Kaarlo Tuori, as saying: "The draft constitutional amendments need to be drastically revised before they undergo the second reading."
The constitutional package was approved by the Armenian parliament, dominated by Kocharian’s loyalists, in the first reading on May 11. It is a slightly revised version of the draft amendments that were unveiled by Kocharian and his three-party governing coalition last November.
In a report last December, Venice Commission experts said "more significant amendments" are needed for putting in place an effective system of checks and balances between the government branches in Armenia.
Their recommendations would in particular give more powers to the National Assembly, seriously limit the president’s controversial authority to appoint and sack virtually all judges and make the mayor of Yerevan an elected official. The Armenian authorities have so far been reluctant to embrace such changes.
The Venice Commission warned that if their recommendations are not “fully” accepted by the authorities “the whole constitutional reform process would fail to bring Armenia closer to European values and attain the aim of further European integration.”
The issue apparently topped the agenda Kocharian’s meeting on Monday with leaders of the three parties represented in his government. One of them, deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, strongly criticized the Council of Europe body. “While accepting their questioning, I think that their reaction is not adequate,” he told RFE/RL before the meeting.
Torosian argued that Venice Commission experts should have reserved judgment on the issue until after their visit to Yerevan which is scheduled to start on Thursday. He said the parliament has yet to debate the amendments in the second and final reading and could change them as a result.
Torosian, who has personally dealt with the Venice Commission, went on to accuse the Council of Europe of trying to “equate” Armenia with Azerbaijan. “I am certain that this statement can be used for political aims by other organizations,” he said without elaborating.
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian was far more cautious in his reaction to the embarrassing criticism. “I think a lot has been that in that direction,” he told reporters, referring to constitutional reform. “We are still not where the Europeans would like us to be. That is why we have to work.”
Constitutional reform was one of the conditions for Armenia’s hard-won accession to the Council of Europe in January 2001. In a resolution adopted last September, the organization’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) gave Yerevan until June to hold the repeatedly delayed constitutional referendum. Armenian officials reportedly told PACE leaders in April that the vote will likely take place in late July or early August.