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By Emil Danielyan, Ruzanna Khachatrian and Nane Atshemian
The president of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) appealed to Armenians on Tuesday to actively participate in Sunday’s constitutional referendum, in an apparent effort to offset opposition calls for its popular boycott.

Rene van der Linden warned that their failure to vote in droves would raise questions about their “commitment to Europe” and hamper Armenia’s integration into European structures.

High voter turnout is a necessary condition for the adoption of constitutional amendments drafted by the Armenian leadership and endorsed by the Council of Europe. To pass, they need to be backed by at least one third of 2.4 million people listed on Armenia’s reputedly inflated electoral rolls.

“The revision of the Constitution is a major political event that will affect the daily lives of all Armenian citizens. It is therefore important that everyone expresses their opinion,” van der Linden said in a statement from Strasbourg.

The statement did not explicitly tell Armenians to vote for the proposed amendments. Still, the PACE chief made no secret of his desire to see a positive outcome of the referendum. “Failure of this referendum due to a too low turnout, a repetition of what happened during the first Constitutional referendum on 25 May 2003, would be a major setback for Armenia’s progress in fulfilling some of the most important commitments the country made when joining the Council of Europe,” he said.

Visiting Yerevan in August, van der Linden similarly warned that Armenia will face “serious consequences” in the Strasbourg-based assembly if the referendum fails. The Council of Europe’s decision-making Council of Ministers and the European Union have also called for a “yes” vote. Such statements have been welcomed by official Yerevan. But some Armenian opposition leaders have condemned them as an interference in the country’s internal affairs.

The amendments in question would transfer some of the sweeping powers enjoyed by the Armenian president to the parliament, the cabinet of ministers and the courts. Opposition leaders insist that they are cosmetic and could even allow President Robert Kocharian to seek a third term in office in 2008.

The authorities, for their part, emphasize the fact that the amendments reflect most of the recommendations made by the Venice Commission, a body advising the Council of Europe on legal reform. They say success of the constitutional reform would therefore boost Armenia’s standing in the pan-European organization.

Local observers say it would also strengthen the Kocharian administration’s positions at home. “The constitutional changes initiated by the authorities and strongly backed by European structures serve no other purpose but to legitimize the current authorities,” said Tigran Paskevichian, a prominent newspaper columnist.

But according to Armen Rustamian, a leader of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), benefits would accrue to the entire nation. “The amendments’ advantages over the existing constitution are obvious,” Rustamian said at a meeting with several hundred employees of Armenia’s largest thermal power plant located in the central town of Hrazdan.

“They would give our country a very serious chance to reform its political system,” added Rustamian. “Our country will reap significant benefits, if we enact these changes on November 27.”

Some participants of the meeting found the explanation convincing. “I will vote yes,” said one man, singling out an amendment that would enable ordinary citizens to appeal to the Constitutional Court.

But finding proponents of the reform outside the plant proved more difficult. “We know little about the existing constitution,” said one resident of Hrazdan. “Now they have come up with a new one, and we are not familiar with it either. I don’t think all of this is done for the working man.”

“We need someone who would enforce the law,” argued another. “If it’s not enforced, what difference would [the new constitution] make?”

In a related development, the Yerevan Press Club noted on Tuesday an “obvious bias in favor of a ‘yes’ vote” in the televised coverage of the pre-referendum campaign. “The number of references to a ‘no’ vote has been quite low,” Mesrop Harutiunian, a senior member of the independent media watchdog, said, presenting interim findings of YPC monitoring of Armenia’s four largest television channels.

The YPC found much greater diversity in newspaper coverage of the campaign. Many Armenian newspapers, including the country’s best-selling daily, are critical of the ruling regime. By contrast, virtually all local broadcasters are believed to be controlled by Kocharian.

Opposition leaders have for weeks been complaining that the TV stations refuse to broadcast any paid advertisements urging voters to reject the amendments. The latter have aired, free of charge, only ads that urge a “yes” vote.

(Council of Europe photo: Rene van der Linden.)
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