By Armen Zakarian
Armenia has moved closer to meeting European standards for democracy and human rights with the hotly disputed passage of amendments to its constitution, the head of a Council of Europe body that was instrumental in the reform said on Tuesday.
Gianni Buquicchio of the Venice Commission, which advises the pan-European organization on legal matters, indicated that serious fraud reported during the November 27 constitutional referendum will be more than offset by the benefits of the enacted constitutional changes. But he admitted that many Armenians do not share that view.
“The referendum was organized to approve a draft constitution which in my strong personal opinion, will really bring Armenia closer to Europe because you will have a more balanced and democratic constitution,” Buquicchio told RFE/RL in an interview. “It’s not the most ideal constitution, but it’s a very important step forward in comparison with the [Armenian authorities’] previous constitutional suggestions.”
“Now it’s time to go farther and implement the constitution and related legislation,” he said. “There is a lot of work to be done and the Venice Commission is ready to continue its cooperation with Armenia.”
The Council of Europe and the Venice Commission in particular have been a driving force behind President Robert Kocharian’s constitutional reform. The European Union and the United States have also endorsed it. They have said all along that the amendments, which purport to curtail sweeping powers vested in the Armenian presidency and strengthen the judiciary, will facilitate Armenia’s democratization and European integration.
However, the Armenian opposition, which has alleged massive vote rigging, insists that the reform is irrelevant to the country’s political problems. Opposition leaders say their view was born out by the authorities’ handling of the referendum. Its official results showed a very high voter turnout and a crushing “yes” vote despite a visible lack of popular interest in the vote.
Their credibility was questioned by observers from the Council of Europe who concluded that “the extremely low voting activity did not correspond to the high figures provided by the electoral commissions.” The Council of Europe’s political leadership has yet to react to the observers’ findings.
“I regret that the referendum was not as good as I wished it was,” said Buquicchio. He also acknowledged that Armenia’s “population didn’t consider the vote and the constitution an important thing.” “Probably because they don’t believe that the constitutional will be implemented correctly,” he said.
“But I think Armenia has now the structures which can help to properly implement the new constitution. You have a constitutional court, independent judiciary, which will become much more independent thanks to the constitutional revision,” added Buquicchio.
The Armenian courts have rarely ruled against the government and are mistrusted by the opposition and the public in general. One of the adopted amendments restricts the president’s constitutional authority to appoint and dismiss all Armenian judges except five members of the Constitutional Court.
The Council of Justice, a body that recommends judicial candidates to the president of the republic, will now be dominated by nine judges to be elected by their colleagues. All members of the council were until now appointed by the head of state. Analysts say it will take years before one could gauge the practical impact of this change.