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By Astghik Bedevian and Tigran Avetisian
The Armenian parliament on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to pass a government-drafted amendment which local politicians and pundits believe paves the way for a popular referendum on a compromise solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The draft amendment to Armenia’s law on referendums was submitted to the National Assembly and debated under an urgent procedure shortly after President Serzh Sarkisian reportedly pledged not to sign any peace accords with Azerbaijan without securing their approval by voters. It allows the government to hold non-binding plebiscites on any policy issue.

The holding of referendums has until now been the prerogative of the parliament and the president of the republic. The Armenian state authorities are obliged to abide by their results.

Only seven deputies of the 131-member legislature voted against the amendment in the first reading. All but one of them represent the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party that has condemned it as unconstitutional. Zharangutyun leaders regard the measure as a prelude to what they see as unacceptable Armenian territorial concessions to Azerbaijan.

The government and its loyal parliamentary majority have dismisses the opposition claims, while declining to rule out of the conduct of a Karabakh-related referendum in Armenia in the coming months. “There are no dangers here,” Galust Sahakian, the parliamentary leader of the governing Republican Party of Armenia, told RFE/RL. “There are only attempts to exploit the issue.”

Local political analysts were divided over the likelihood of such a vote. “I don’t think the authorities will take such a primitive step,” said Manvel Sargsian of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies. “It can’t be productive.”

Sargsian believes that persisting political tensions in Armenia as well as a lack of public knowledge of details of the Karabakh peace process make a referendum pointless. “There is so much uncertainty that people feel the government is plotting something bad,” he said. “They don’t view this as a good mechanism for expressing their position.”

But another analyst, Stepan Grigorian, defended the adopted amendment, saying that it gives the Armenian side more room for maneuver in the peace talks with Azerbaijan. He said Yerevan could use a popular vote for rejecting concessions to Azerbaijan that might be sought by international mediators. “If there is international pressure [on Armenia,] it is possible that the authorities will use the referendum factor,” Grigorian told RFE/RL.

(Photolur photo: President Sarkisian and leaders of nearly 50 Armenian parties discuss the Karabakh negotiating process on November 20.)
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