By Astghik Bedevian
The Armenian parliament began debating on Tuesday a bill that would allow the government to hold non-binding referendums and is widely linked with a possible breakthrough in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.
The holding of plebiscites has until now been the prerogative of the National Assembly and the president of the republic. The Armenian state authorities are obliged to abide by their results.
The government drafted a relevant amendment to an Armenia law on referendums shortly after President Serzh Sarkisian reportedly assured leaders of about 50 political parties last month that he will not sign any peace accords with Azerbaijan without securing their approval by voters.
That Sarkisian is ready to put international mediators’ Karabakh peace proposals on a referendum was confirmed on Monday by Artur Baghdasarian, secretary of Armenia’s National Security Council. The mediators hope that Armenia and Azerbaijan will cut a framework peace deal in the coming months and even weeks.
Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian said the government wants to gauge public opinion on various issues of nationwide significance as he presented the draft amendment to lawmakers. The government would not be bound by the outcome of such votes, he said. Danielian skirted repeated questions about the bill’s connection with recent developments in the Karabakh negotiating process.
The parliament’s two largest factions representing the governing Republican and Prosperous Armenia parties backed the bill, all but predetermining its passage expected on Wednesday. The two other parties represented in the governing coalition, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and Orinats Yerkir, have not formulated their positions on the matter yet.
Zharangutyun, the only opposition party represented in the parliament, rejected the bill as a prelude to what it see as unacceptable Armenian territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. Armen Martirosian, a senior Zharangutyun parliamentarian, claimed that it is unconstitutional. “Under the constitution, the government has no right to hold referendums in any way,” he said.
The claim was echoed by former parliament speaker Tigran Torosian. “This draft clearly does not meet constitutional requirements,” he said during the debate.
Some pro-government deputies acknowledged that possible Karabakh peace is a key factor behind the government’s surprise desire to consult with the electorate on major issues. “What is wrong with putting some details of that issue [Karabakh] on a referendum and getting the public’s united position on it?” one of them, Prosperous Armenia’s Naira Zohrabian, asked.