By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s two main opposition groups urged their supporters on Tuesday to vote against draft constitutional amendments which President Robert Kocharian is expected to put to a referendum later this year.
In a joint statement, the Artarutyun (Justice) alliance and the National Unity Party said the changes proposed by Kocharian and his governing coalition envisage only a symbolic reduction of sweeping powers vested in the Armenian presidency. “The draft amendments adopted by the National Assembly in the first reading on May 11 reject changes needed for the country’s democratization and aim to preserve the country’s autocratic system,” they said.
“Real democratic constitutional reforms have no alternative and will be carried out after the establishment of a legitimate government,” the statement added.
The statement followed a strong criticism of Kocharian’s constitutional package that was voiced by the so-called Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. The commission said on Friday that most of its key recommendations made last December have been ignored by the Armenian authorities.
The recommendations would in particular give more powers to the Armenian parliament, seriously limit the president’s controversial authority to appoint and sack virtually all judges and make the mayor of Yerevan an elected official.
Both Artarutyun and the AMK indicated earlier this year that they will endorse Kocharian’s constitutional reform if these proposals are included in the package. The proposed deal was effectively turned down by the parliament’s pro-presidential majority, however.
A senior member of Artarutyun, Shavarsh Kocharian, told RFE/RL that the opposition offer is still on the table. “If all of what we are proposing is accepted why should be say ‘no’?” he said. “For us constitutional reform is not a pretext to oust the regime. There are many other reasons to oust the regime.”
However, other Artarutyun leaders have already pledged to turn the planned constitutional vote into a “referendum of confidence” in Kocharian. They admit that the opposition will try to use the referendum as a rallying cry for another push for regime change.
Meanwhile, the Venice Commission criticism was discussed late Monday by Kocharian and leaders of his three-party governing coalition. One of the meeting’s participants, Levon Mkrtchian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation party, said Kocharian and his allies feel that the Council of Europe is unjustly penalizing Armenia to counterbalance its anticipated criticism of human rights abuses in neighboring Azerbaijan.
Mkrtchian told RFE/RL that while the Armenian authorities are ready to embrace “80 or even 90 percent” of the Venice Commission recommendations they will reject any “ultimatums” from Strasbourg.
The Venice Commission warned that if its suggestions 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.” Its legal experts dealing with Armenia are due to arrive in Yerevan on Thursday to discuss the situation.
(Photolur photo: Artarutyun leader Stepan Demirchian, left, and AMK leader Artashes Geghamian greeting opposition supporters at a rally in April 2004.)