By Armen Zakarian in Strasbourg
Official Yerevan formally committed itself to accepting the key Council of Europe recommendations on the reform of Armenia’s controversial constitution on Friday, one day after facing strong criticism from the organization’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE).
Senior Armenian government officials assured the Venice Commission, a Council of Europe body in charge of legislative reform, that they will make three far-reaching changes in a package of constitutional amendments that will be put to a referendum later this year.
Those amendments would considerably curtail President Robert Kocharian’s sweeping powers to appoint and sack the government as well as judges at will. They would also make the mayor of Yerevan, home of at least one third of Armenia’s population, an elected official.
“Today is a big day for Armenia and Europe,” Gianni Buquicchio, the Venice Commission secretary, told RFE/RL after a meeting in Strasbourg with a high-level Armenian delegation.
The delegation comprised Justice Minister David Harutiunian, Kocharian’s top constitutional expert Armen Harutiunian and senior representatives of Armenia’s three governing parties. The meeting was also attended by Vartan Poghosian, a lawyer close to the Armenian opposition which backs the Council of Europe demands.
“Agreements were reached on all three contentious issues in the form of principles,” Poghosian told RFE/RL. “The Armenian side must now turn them into a constitutional draft that should be submitted to the Venice Commission by July 7.”
The Venice Commission will pass judgment on them by July 20, he said. Buquicchio confirmed the information.
According to Poghosian, Kocharian’s representatives specifically pledged to embrace amendments that would strip the president of his discretionary power to sack prime ministers. He said only the National Assembly would have such authority. In addition, the president would be legally bound to appoint a prime minister who is backed by the parliament majority.
The Armenian authorities have for months dragged their feet over these changes. They began to cave in after a strongly-worded criticism voiced by the Venice Commission last month.
The Council’s Parliamentary Assembly threw its weight behind the criticism on Thursday, warning that failure to accept the commission’s recommendations would put Armenia at loggerheads with the Strasbourg-based human rights body.
The deal cut in Strasbourg increases the pressure on the Armenian opposition to end its boycott of parliament sessions and endorse Kocharian’s constitutional reform. Some opposition leaders have said they will do so if the Venice Commission proposals are accepted by the authorities, but others remain uncompromising in their plans to topple Kocharian.
The PACE urged the opposition on Thursday to end the boycott and “do everything possible to promote the recommendations of the Council of Europe with regard to the constitutional reform.”