By Hrach Melkumian and Atom Markarian
The Armenian parliament finished four-day debates on constitutional reform in the absence of its opposition minority on Thursday, approving the final version of draft amendments that will be put to a referendum in November.
The National Assembly voted by 98 to 0, with one abstention, to adopt President Robert Kocharian’s constitutional draft in the second reading. Journalists present at the session counted only 82 deputies, though.
The draft may still undergo minor editorial changes before being passed in the third, final reading later this month. It is meant to curtail sweeping powers vested in the Armenian presidency by the current constitution which was enacted at a disputed referendum ten years ago. The Council of Europe, the European Union and the United States say the proposed changes would spur political reform in the country.
But Armenia’s two largest opposition groups represented in parliament dismissed them as insignificant and insist on a more radical reform. The more two dozen deputies representing the Artarutyun bloc and the National Unity Party (AMK) urged supporters to vote against the amendments and resumed their boycott of parliament on Wednesday after its pro-Kocharian majority rejected most of their demands.
Artarutyun’s top leader, Stepan Demirchian, said the lack of opposition support for the reform means that the November referendum will be “doomed to failure” unless the authorities falsify its results. “If they rig elections, they will try to rig the referendum as well,” he told RFE/RL. “That’s their style.”
The opposition actions were denounced by Vahan Hovannisian, the deputy parliament speaker and a leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation party. “We are really changing the system, whereas they want to change government without changing the system,” he said in a speech.
In a separate interview with RFE/RL, Hovannisian said Thursday’s vote marks the start of campaigning for the referendum. “An opposition which does not accept the government’s right to govern the country and carry out reforms is leading itself into deadlock, underground and actions beyond the law,” he said.
Kocharian, meanwhile, repeated through a spokesman his view that the opposition miscalculated his government’s handling of the process and found itself in a “difficult situation” as a result. “They expected that the Armenian authorities will not opt for greater democratization and will find themselves at odds with European structures,” the presidential press secretary, Victor Soghomonian, told a news conference. “They hoped to draw dividends from that and escalate the political situation.”
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, for his part, said he was not surprised by the opposition tactic. He also dismissed opposition claims that a negative outcome of the referendum would mean a popular vote of no confidence in the Kocharian administration.
“We would reckon [in that case] that the people don’t trust the authorities on this issue,” Sarkisian told journalists. “But that wouldn’t mean they don’t trust in general.”
“These authorities never got votes of confidence,” countered Aram Sarkisian, the most radical of Artarutyun’s leaders who refused to even attend the parliament debates. “That is why any step taken by these authorities can not be accepted by the public.”
Sarkisian acknowledged that his Hanrapetutyun party and other opposition groups view the constitutional proceedings as an opportunity to “carry out processes which the public expects from the opposition.” “That is, to change this regime,” he explained.
But Hovannisian shrugged off the opposition plans to make another bid for regime change. “Our people are cautious and conservative and they very well understand challenges facing the country,” he said. “Those challenges can not be met with internal upheavals.”