By Armen Zakarian and Karine Kalantarian
Armenia’s two main opposition groups announced on Wednesday their final decision to reject President Robert Kocharian’s draft constitutional amendments, saying that their enactment would legitimize the ruling regime rather than foster the country’s democratization.
The move dealt a serious blow to Kocharian’s and his governing coalition’s hopes for rallying sufficient popular support for the proposed changes at a referendum due in November. It came on the third day of heated debates on the issue in the Armenian parliament.
The leaders of the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance and the National Unity Party (AMK) reiterated their allegations that the authorities have repeatedly violated the existing Armenian constitution that already guarantees free elections, human rights and the rule of law. They also cited the authorities’ refusal to embrace more serious restrictions on sweeping powers enjoyed by the Armenian president.
“Finding some articles and transitional provisions in the submitted draft unacceptable, taking into account the flawed acceptance of its proposals and the absence of any steps to form an atmosphere of trust, the Artarutyun faction will not take part in the parliament vote, will say ‘no’ to the referendum and will say ‘no’ to the illegitimate regime,” the bloc’s top leader, Stepan Demirchian, said in a first-ever speech at the National Assembly.
“Dear people, if you say ‘no’ to the [amended] constitution -- and that’s what National Unity is urging you to do -- you will say ‘no’ to the organizers of the October 27 [1999 attack on the Armenian parliament], the falsified elections of 1998-2003, and the barbaric acts of April 2004,” AMK leader Artashes Geghamian declared for his part. “You will also say that real power belongs to the people.”
Demirchian’s speech was followed by a collective walkout of the more than two dozen parliamentarians affiliated with the two opposition groups. They suspended on Monday their 18-month boycott of parliament sessions to attend the debate broadcast live by state television.
The walkout could not prevent the parliament’s pro-Kocharian majority from approving the final constitutional draft in the first reading. Ninety-two members of the 131-strong assembly voted for the draft. Its adoption in the second and final readings is scheduled for Thursday and September 11 respectively.
The Armenian opposition decided to reject the draft amendments despite the fact they are supported by the Council of Europe, the European Union and the United States. The latter say constitutional reform would result in a more effective system of checks and balances among Armenia’s branches of government.
The Western support for the reform was emphasized by leaders of the parliament majority throughout the debates. They warned that failure to implement it would get Armenia in trouble with the Council of Europe.
But opposition leaders insist that the proposed constitutional changes are cosmetic. They also say the existing constitution, enacted a decade ago, is not the main cause of Yerevan’s poor human rights record and failure to hold elections recognized as free and fair by the West.
“The existing constitution has no provision that requires ballot box stuffing, fraud and repressions in the conduct of elections,” argued Demirchian. “On the contrary, it states clearly that usurpation of power by an individual or an organization is a grave crime. It is, to put it mildly, not convincing when individuals and political forces responsible for such crimes and other illegalities hypocritically speak of European values or pose as reformers.”
“The reason why individuals that perpetrated vote falsifications and high-level corrupt officials are not held accountable is not the flawed constitution but a few individuals’ penchant for clinging to power at any cost,” he added. “When criminal elements are growing intertwined with the government, who can guarantee that elections will not be rigged and citizens’ rights will not be violated after the enactment of the constitutional amendments?”
Some of the other opposition leaders claim that a positive outcome of the November referendum would enable Kocharian to seek a third term in office in 2008. They say in that case the authorities could declare that Armenia has a new constitution and start a new countdown of presidential terms. The existing constitution bars the Armenian president can not stay in power for more than two five-year tenures.
Kocharian’s spokesman, Victor Soghomonian, was quoted by the Russian daily “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” on Wednesday as denying such speculation. “Amendments to the constitution would mean the adoption of a new basic law,” he said.
The paper also reported that officials in the Kremlin believe that a third Kocharian term is unlikely and that the Armenian leader will instead handpick his powerful defense minister, Serzh Sarkisian, as his successor.
Ensuring the success of the referendum is a daunting task for Kocharian’s administration. To pass, his draft amendments must be backed by a majority of referendum participants that make up at least one third of Armenia’s 2.4 million eligible voters. Opposition leaders allege that the authorities can not pass that threshold without massive vote rigging.
Kocharian indicated last week that he will mobilize all political and administrative resources at his disposal to get Armenians to vote for the amendments in droves. According to an opinion poll conducted last month, most residents of Yerevan know little about the essence of the reform and do not intend to vote in the referendum.
Anecdotal evidence of persisting popular apathy remains strong, with most people randomly interviewed by RFE/RL on the streets of Yerevan on Wednesday sounding cynical about the reform process and the parliament debates in particular.
“They say so little about the constitution,” complained one woman. “I think most people don’t know what all the fuss is about.”
“I don’t follow it because I don’t expect anything good,” said another. “I’m so fed up with politics. They have fooled around for so long.”