By Armen Zakarian
Opposition leaders suspended their 18-month boycott of parliament on Monday as it began final debates on President Robert Kocharian’s draft amendments to Armenia’s constitution that are due to be put to a referendum in November.
Members of the National Assembly’s opposition minority were present at the extraordinary session despite the rejection of their demands for more serious constitutional amendments. Leaders of the parliament’s pro-presidential majority effectively ruled out any changes in Kocharian’s revised constitutional package that were endorsed by the Council of Europe last month. Its approval by the majority of lawmakers and rejection by the country’s two main opposition groups now appear to be a forgone conclusion.
Each rival camps regards the debate, broadcast live by state television, as an opportunity to rally public support for its cause. As many as 39 deputies registered to address the assembly. Only two of them got to speak on Monday, suggesting that the proceedings could take at least two more days.
The session began with an angry dispute between the parliament leadership and some opposition lawmakers over procedural matters. Speaker Artur Baghdasarian accused them of trying to hampers the discussions by raising insignificant issues. He also emphasized the fact that Kocharian and his governing coalition enjoy the backing of the Council of Europe and in particular its advisory body on constitutional law, the Venice Commission.
The commission’s Italian secretary, Gianni Buquicchio, did not arrive in Yerevan despite his earlier pledge to address the parliament and urge Armenians to vote for the proposed amendments. According to the head of the Council of Europe office in Armenia, Bojana Urumova, he simply missed a connecting flight to Yerevan at the weekend.
“The Venice Commission believes in this text and supports it fully,” Urumova told the parliament, speaking on behalf of Buquicchio.
The constitutional reform is also supported by the European Union and the United States. “The United States supports the efforts of all those who have been involved in the process of attempting to amend the current Armenian Constitution, and encourages all parties to engage in responsible and constructive debate on this issue,” U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans said in a statement published by Yerevan newspapers on Saturday.
“In our view the current package represents a notable step forward, but its approval is of course a matter for the voters of the Republic of Armenia to decide,” Evans added.
Opposition leaders insist on more far-reaching constitutional changers that would seriously curtail the sweeping presidential powers, make Armenian courts more independent and ensure that Yerevan’s future mayors are directly elected. They also accuse the authorities of repeatedly violating Armenia’s existing constitution and laws that already provide for democratic elections and human rights.
One of them, Artashes Geghamian, delivered an emotional speech in the parliament, decrying what he described as an atmosphere of impunity reigning among senior government officials and their cronies. He charged that the authorities are too unpopular and discredited to win sufficient popular support for the reform.