By Armen Zakarian
The freedom and fairness of the upcoming constitutional referendum in Armenia is of “utmost importance” to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), its president, René van der Linden, said on Wednesday.
In an interview with RFE/RL given ahead of his trip to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, van der Linden stressed that the Armenian authorities’ handling of the vote, expected to be held in November, will be “a real test for the country’s democratic credibility.”
“They have to show that they are a full-fledged member of the Council of Europe,” he said. “They have to show the international community and the Council of Europe in particular that they are able to fulfill their commitments. It’s one of the key elements in the discussions between the PACE and Armenia, and I hope that we can have a result which is also in line with the requirements of the Council of Europe.”
Constitutional reform was one of the conditions for Armenia’s entry to the Strasbourg-based pan-European organization in 2001. Its advisory body, the Venice Commission, has endorsed a revised package of constitutional amendments drafted by President Robert Kocharian and his governing coalition, urging Armenians to back it at the referendum. The European Union and the United States have also called for their passage, saying that it would facilitate Armenia’s democratization.
Van der Linden would not say if he will promote those amendments during his visit to Yerevan which begins on Thursday and involves talks with President Robert Kocharian, parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and leaders of the Armenian opposition. He said he expects a “tough discussion” with opposition leaders.
Most of them are unlikely to endorse the proposed constitutional changes, saying that they are not significant enough. They also argue that an amended constitution would not automatically increase the likelihood of free and fair elections in Armenia. The West, they say, should therefore concentrate on ensuring a proper enforcement of Armenia’s existing laws that provide for democratic elections and guarantee human rights.
“It’s really important for me to hear all the arguments,” van der Linden said. “They as well as the government have to know that we are very keen on conditions for free and fair elections and the fulfillment of the electoral law and the constitution.”
To pass, the draft amendments have to be backed by a majority of referendum participants that make up at least one third of Armenia’s 2.4 million eligible voters. Some opposition leaders claim that the authorities can not secure sufficient voter support for the reform without massive vote rigging.
(Council of Europe photo)