By Ruzanna Stepanian
President Robert Kocharian reiterated on Wednesday that he believes his recently enacted constitutional amendments will help to turn Armenia into a democratic and rule-of-law country where human rights are respected by the state.
“They open new prospects for the comprehensive development of our country and people, ensure more balance activities of various branches of government, and boost respect for human rights,” he said in a written address to the nation.
The statement was dedicated to the 11th anniversary of the passage in a controversial 1995 referendum of Armenia’s post-Soviet constitution that has been widely criticized for giving sweeping powers to the president of the republic at the expense of the judicial and legislative branches. July 5 is a public holiday in the country.
Some of the presidential powers were curtailed as a result of last November’s nationwide referendum on Kocharian’s Western-backed constitutional reform. Its significance was stressed by Prime Minister in a separate message to Armenians.
The United States and the European Union have likewise praised the reform. However, the manner in which the Armenian authorities handled the November referendum overshadowed their assurances that the constitutional amendments bode well for Armenia’s democratization.
According to official vote results, almost two thirds of the country’s 2.3 million eligible voters took part in the referendum and over 93 percent of them endorsed the changes. However, the record-high voter turnout reported by the Kocharian-controlled Central Election Commission was at odds with unusually deserted polling stations witnesses by journalists and observers on voting day. The Armenian opposition estimated the turnout at below 16 percent, alleging massive vote rigging.
Most ordinary citizens randomly interviewed by RFE/RL in central Yerevan said they boycotted the referendum. Many were therefore cynical about the reform’s impact on their lives.
I don’t see any positive change. Things have gotten even worse,” one woman said, referring to the situation with the rule of law and human rights protection.
“I didn’t take part in the referendum but closely followed debates [preceding it],” said an elderly man who had trouble remembering what event Armenia was marking on Wednesday. He said he boycotted the vote because, “As Russians say, the law is on the books but not for everyone.”
(RFE/RL photo: A billboard urging Armenians to vote for the amendments.)