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By Ruzanna Stepanian
A coalition of about two dozen opposition parties campaigning against proposed amendments to Armenia’s constitution urged supporters on Tuesday to boycott the upcoming referendum.

The joint decision by the Artarutyun bloc and other opposition groups marked a major change in the opposition tactic of attempting to scuttle the enactment of President Robert Kocharian’s constitutional package. It was announced at their first pre-referendum rally in Yerevan.

“We urge you to boycott the constitutional referendum and gather in Yerevan, on [Freedom] square,” Aram Sarkisian, the leader of the most radical of nine parties aligned in Artarutyun, told hundreds of people who gathered in the city’s southern Shengavit district. “We will win and so help us God,” he said in a fiery speech.

“We must do everything to disrupt their game,” said Vazgen Manukian, another prominent oppositionist. “We need to flick this regime to cause its collapse, after which we will assemble the people and decide what kind of a constitution our country needs.”

Manukian is the only Artarutyun leader who explicitly favored the boycott option right from the beginning, saying that it would make it more difficult for the authorities to rig the November 27 referendum. But virtually all other members of the bloc’s governing board decided last month to urge Armenians to participate in the referendum and vote against the draft amendments.

They as well as Geghamian began to have second thoughts about the effectiveness of this tactic shortly after the start of the campaign. Geghamian’s party is now also expected to call for a popular boycott.

To pass, Kocharian’s amendments need to be approved by at least one third of 2.4 million people listed on Armenia’s notoriously inaccurate electoral rolls. High voter turnout is therefore crucial for the success of constitutional reform. Kocharian and his allies, backed by the West, say it is essential for the country’s democratization and European integration.

But the opposition leaders insist that the constitution and other laws are irrelevant to political reform in Armenian because they are commonly violated by the authorities. “Nothing will change under this regime even if a perfect constitution takes effect,” Aram Karapetian of the Nor Zhamanakner party told the Shengavit rally.

Some of its participants told RFE/RL that they are still unaware of the content of the constitutional changes. “I’ve looked for a brochure of the constitutional draft all over the city and discovered that nobody sells it,” said one man.

The manager of the “Yes” campaign, Mher Shahgeldian, claimed on Monday that campaigning by the Armenian authorities and their loyal parties has already considerably raised public awareness of the issue. “There is now a growing [public] inclination to vote for the constitutional reforms,” he said.

But Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian admitted on Tuesday that most voters will not bother to familiarize themselves with the long list of amendments by November 27. “I am convinced that the majority of our society will not read the constitution and all those reform provisions,” he said. “They will be guided by what they hear [from politicians].”

For most opposition supporters, the amendments must be rejected simply because they come from the government. One elderly man in Shengavit summed their dominant mood when he said, “I know that if I say ‘yes,’ I will benefit this government and they will strengthen their positions. That is why I am going to say ‘no.’”

(Photolur photo: Opposition supporetrs rallying in Yerevan.)
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