By Emil Danielyan and Armen Zakarian
President Robert Kocharian has indicated that he will mobilize all political and administrative resources at his disposal to ensure a positive outcome of the November referendum on his Western-backed draft amendments to the Armenian constitution.
Kocharian described his package of constitutional changes as a “quality document” that meets “the highest European standards.” He said the Armenian opposition is therefore wrong to believe that their approval by a majority of voters would benefit only the ruling regime.
“That can not mean a victory for the government and a defeat for the opposition,” he said in remarks broadcast by state television late Wednesday. “That can only be regarded … as a victory of our people and our country.”
Kocharian suggested that his political opponents refusing to endorse the reform had wrongly calculated that he will not embrace important constitutional amendments demanded by the Council of Europe and its top advisory body, the Venice Commission, in particular. “It was expected that we will clash with the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe, and that the opposition will brilliantly use that situation for achieving internal political goals. In my opinion, this was their calculation. But the opposite happened.”
Kocharian and his governing three-party coalition made major changes in their constitutional draft last month after it was strongly criticized by the Venice Commission and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). The changes envisage additional curbs on sweeping powers enjoyed by Armenian the president. Both the commission and the PACE have endorsed them and urged the opposition to help the authorities ensure their passage at the referendum.
However, one of Armenia’s two main opposition forces, the Artartutyun bloc, maintains that the proposed changes are cosmetic and wants the authorities to give more powers to parliament, courts and local governments. Artarutyun’s governing board reaffirmed its position on the issue after a meeting on Thursday. “The bloc’s position is that there are today no sufficient grounds for saying ‘yes’ to the existing draft,” one of its members, Shavarsh Kocharian, told reporters.
There are growing indications that opposition leader Artashes Geghamian’s National Unity Party (AMK) will also reject the amendments. Geghamian is expected to ascertain his position during the final parliament debates on the issue that are scheduled to start on Monday.
Opposition support is essential for the success of the reform. To pass, the amendments need to be backed by a majority of referendum participants that would make up at least one third of Armenia’s 2.4 million eligible voters.
While expressing hope that the opposition will eventually fall in line, Kocharian made it clear that he is planning a massive “propaganda” campaign to convince Armenians to vote for his amendments in large numbers. He compared it to the high-level organization of a mass folk dance around Armenia’s highest mountain that took place on May 28 after months of preparations overseen by Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian.
“If we manage to launch a propaganda campaign over the constitutional reforms which will be seen as a manifestation of the unity of our people, as was the case during the circle dance, and if we achieve a positive result with a festive atmosphere, then, I repeat, that will be a victory for both the people and the country,” Kocharian explained.
The dance, which brought together more than 160,000 people, was officially organized by Hovsepian’s Nig-Aparan non-governmental organization that unites prominent natives of the Aparan district adjacent to Mount Aragats. However, the logistical, administrative and financial involvement of various law-enforcement structures, local government bodies and some of Armenia’s wealthiest individuals close to Kocharian was evident throughout the process.
The Armenian opposition denounced the event as a public relations stunt aimed at deflecting public attention from the country’s woes. One of its most outspoken and radical leaders, Aram Sarkisian, on Thursday scoffed at Kocharian’s comparison. “It’s a pity that his worldview is such that he equates a constitutional referendum with a circle dance,” Sarkisian said.