By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Armen Zakarian
President Robert Kocharian’s Western-backed efforts to amend the Armenian constitution suffered a setback on Thursday when the country’s largest opposition group vowed to campaign against the passage of his draft constitutional changes at a national referendum due in November.
The Artarutyun (Justice) bloc argued that the authorities have refused to meet any of their demands for more serious limits on the sweeping powers enjoyed by the president of the republic. Its leaders also appeared to have bridged their simmering differences on the issue that threatened the unity of the nine-party alliance.
“The alliance today sees no reason to say ‘yes’ to the constitutional amendments,” one of them, Aram Sarkisian, told reporters after a meeting of Artarutyun’s governing board that formulated its final position on constitutional reform.
The move may put the opposition alliance at odds with not only the authorities but also the Council of Europe that has long championed the reform. The Venice Commission of the Strasbourg-based organization endorsed last month a revised package of constitutional amendments put forward by Kocharian and his governing coalition, saying that their enactment would advance Armenia’s democratization and European integration. The European Union and the United States have taken a similar stance, urging the Armenian opposition to fall in line.
The Artarutyun bloc has made its support for the reform conditional on the authorities’ acceptance of three specific amendments. 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. A recent opinion poll found that the overwhelming majority of Yerevan residents want their future mayors to be directly elected by voters.
The Artarutyun leadership also decided that the members of its 14-strong parliament faction except Sarkisian and two other lawmakers affiliated with his radical Hanrapetutyun party will suspend their boycott of parliament to attend the final debates on the constitution scheduled for August 29. The debates are expected to be broadcast live by the Kocharian-controlled state television.
“The Council of Europe has called on the opposition to take part in this process,” said Artarutyun’s Victor Dallakian. “In effect, we have respected that call and will try to present our views to the public live on television.”
Sarkisian confirmed that he and the two other Hanrapetutyun deputies will not attend the parliament session in line with their party’s unconditional rejection of any reform initiated by Kocharian. Hanrapetutyun earlier criticized its Artarutyun alliance for their willingness to endorse the proposed amendments on certain conditions, threatening to quit the alliance.
Sarkisian, who has rarely participated in the Artarutyun board meetings in the past, was visibly satisfied with the decision taken by his opposition allies. “Fortunately, the approaches of our alliance partners are not very far from our approaches,” he said, adding that he has no problem with their participation in the upcoming parliament debate.
The debate will also be attended by deputies representing another major opposition force, Artashes Geghamian’s National Unity Party (AMK). Geghamian indicated last month that he will back Kocharian’s constitutional draft if it is endorsed by the Council of Europe. However, whispers now suggest that he will urge supporters to vote against the draft amendments and may even join forces with Artarutyun for another attempt to force Kocharian to resign.
The two opposition groups, which refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Kocharian’s disputed 2003 reelection, already tried unsuccessfully to effect regime change through a joint campaign of street protests last year. Sarkisian and his associates now feel that conditions are ripe for another push for power. Sources told RFE/RL that Hanrapetutyun may hold a rally in Yerevan as early as on August 29.
“My view is that the authorities are doing everything to create a revolutionary atmosphere in the country,” said another Artarutyun leader, Shavarsh Kocharian.
Opposition support is essential for the success of the constitutional reform. To pass, the 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 -- something which requires a high voter turnout and public consensus on the issue.
The constitutional reform is high on the agenda of a two-day visit to Yerevan by Rene van der Linden, president of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). He began it Thursday with a meeting with representatives of Armenian non-governmental organizations involved in civic activism.
According to one of the participants, Vartan Poghosian, van der Linden was interested in hearing civil society opinion on the constitutional package and chances of its passage at the November referendum. Poghosian, who leads a coalition of NGOs called Partnership for Open Society, said the PACE chief was told the authorities must embrace more radical changes if they are to attract sufficient popular support.
“Mr. van der Linden asked at the end of the meeting what message we can pass on to him,” he said. “We said we have two messages. The first one is that we want him to raise with the authorities the opposition’s and civil society’s involvement in the process. Second, we want the Europeans to help to make sure that the constitutional referendum is free, fair and transparent.”
“I will use this information in my meetings with the authorities and the opposition,” van der Lin told RFE/RL. He is scheduled to meet Kocharian, parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and opposition leaders on Friday.
(Photolur photo: Artarutyun leader Stepan Demirchian presiding over the meeting.)