By Armen Zakarian, Ruzanna Khachatrian and Karine Kalantarian
Legal experts from the Council of Europe announced on Friday their crucial approval of a raft of constitutional amendments proposed by the Armenian authorities and urged the opposition to strive for their passage at a referendum expected this November.
Government representatives in Yerevan were quick to welcome the findings of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission that allow President Robert Kocharian and his allies to claim the moral high ground in their dealings with their political opponents. Armenia’s largest opposition group, the Artarutyun (Justice) bloc, is thus unlikely to clinch additional concessions which it has demanded from the ruling regime.
Deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian was visibly satisfied as he read out to journalists the main conclusions of a report released by a team of Venice Commission experts dealing with Armenian constitutional reform. The report was posted on the Armenian parliament’s website shortly afterward.
The Strasbourg experts concluded that Yerevan has fulfilled its pledge to make significant changes in its constitutional package that would strip the Armenian president of his discretionary power to sack prime ministers, limit his authority to appoint judges and make the mayor of Yerevan an elected official. The pledge was formalized in an agreement signed by Armenian and Venice Commission officials in Strasbourg late last month.
“The text that we received had followed the principles which we had identified in Strasbourg,” Simona Granata-Menghini, a senior Venice Commission official, told RFE/RL, referring to the revised constitutional amendments sent to Strasbourg on July 7.
“What has been proposed is a workable and viable constitution which is capable of allowing a democratic development of Armenia,” she said. “We consder that a good basis for moving towars democracy.”
The revised constitutional package is understood to have undergone further changes in over the last two weeks. But it is not clear what specifically has been added to the draft. Torosian would not say when the final version of the proposed amendments will be made public. Nor would he clarify if any of the opposition demands have been incorporated into the text.
The Artarutyun bloc has made its support for the reform conditional on the authorities’ acceptance of three specific demands. The most important of them is the removal of a draft amendment giving the Armenian president the right to dissolve parliament if the latter twice rejects prime ministers nominated by him. Artarutyun leaders say this provision would nullify other changes giving more powers to the National Assembly.
Artarutyun also demands a direct election of the Yerevan mayor by the city residents. But Kocharian and his coalition want the mayor to be chosen by an elected municipal council. The Venice Commission experts said in their written opinion that the indirect election is “legitimate” under the European Charter on Local Self-Government.
The leaders of nine opposition parties making up Artarutyun are due to meet in the coming days to formulate its final position on the issue. The most radical of those parties, Hanrapetutyun, has already made it clear that it will campaign against the amendments in any event. Hanrapetutyun leaders say Kocharian has repeatedly violated Armenia’s existing constitution and laws and the country’s democratization is therefore impossible without regime change.
The alliance as a whole may well stick to this line now. Some of its leaders have previously threatened to turn the upcoming referendum into a vote of no confidence in Kocharian.
“First of all, we need to see the final text on which the conclusions have been submitted,” said Shavarsh Kocharian, an Artarutyun leader. “There have been additional changes [in the draft] in the process. We will then assess to what extent our demands have been met.”
Armenia’s second largest opposition force, the National Unity Party (AMK), favors a more conciliatory line, saying that its support for the reform depends on the Council of Europe’s position. The AMK leader, Artashes Geghamian, told RFE/RL his party will examine the revised constitutional package in detail before making decisions.
“If the Armenian authorities once again mislead or trick the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and retreat from their obligations we … will boycott [parliament] debates on the constitutional changes,” Geghamian said.
Opposition support is crucial for the success of the constitutional reform. To pass, Kocharian’s amendments need to be backed by a majority of referendum participants that make up at least one third of Armenia’s 2.4 million eligible voters.
Torosian claimed that the Armenian opposition will committ a “political suicide” if it urges voters to reject the amendments endorsed by the Council of Europe. “I believe in the prudence of my colleagues, but of course the choice is theirs,” he said.
The Venice Commission’s Granata-Menghini, for her part, warned that opposition rejection of the reform would not go down well with the Europeans. “The commission’s opinion is that you should get along with this text,” she said. “We know that the opposition is calling for a boycott and some parts of the oppposition consider that it is better not to cooperate at all with the current authorities. It is certainly not the view of the commission.”
Granata-Menghini further pointed out that the Armenian opposition should be prepared for concessions to the ruling regime. “A constitution is always the result of compromise between the political forces of the country,” she said. There is always some imperfection or some solution which is not the most desired one. The Venice Commission is certainly convinced that political compromise is necessary in Armenia as in any other country.”
Skpetics, however, say even an improved constitution would have little bearing on the Armenian authorities’ handling of future elections. None of the elections held in Armenia to date was judged free and fair by the Council of Europe and other pan-European bodies despite the fact that vote rigging has always been a serious crime under Armenian law.