By Ruzanna Khachatrian
President Robert Kocharian reaffirmed Saturday his intention to put his package of amendments to the Armenian constitution on a nationwide referendum this May. He blamed the opposition for his failure to enact those changes during his first presidential term.
“The opposition proposed an alternative package [last year] and we had to slightly delay this process. But we intend to hold the referendum in May, along with the parliamentary elections,” Kocharian said at a campaign rally in the southern town of Echmiadzin.
An alternative draft constitution circulated by opposition factions in the Armenian parliament one year ago considerably slowed the discussion and approval of Kocharian’s amendments by the National Assembly. The president, who had previously planned to call the referendum in 2002, eventually postponed it for an apparent fear of losing political capital ahead of the 2003 election in what could have been a costly battle with the opposition.
The constitutional changes proposed by Kocharian would somewhat curtail sweeping powers vested in the office of president by the current basic law enacted in 1995. Most opposition parties call them cosmetic and advocate Armenia’s transformation into a parliamentary republic.
Kocharian bases his referendum plans on the assumption that he will win a second term in next week’s presidential election. He said on Saturday that his constitutional reform would strengthen the independence of the Armenian judiciary.
But it was economic issues that dominated Kocharian’s speeches during a campaign trip to Echmiadzin and other areas in Armavir province. Visiting Metsamor, Kocharian defended his government’s decision to grant Russia the financial management of Armenia’s sole nuclear power station, located just outside the town, in payment for its $40 million debts to Russian energy companies. He said the deal should put an end to chronic wage arrears in the plant, which is the Metsamor people’s main employer.
Leaders of the main pro-government parties accompanying Kocharian portrayed the plant’s continuing operations as a result of good governance. “We need Robert Kocharian just like villagers need this snow for a good harvest,” said Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun).
In Echmiadzin, Kocharian claimed that a separate assets-for-debt agreement signed by the Russian and Armenian governments late last year will give a strong boost to Armenia’s stagnant industry. “That deal allows for the integration of our industrial capacities into the Russian military-industrial complex,” he said.
Kocharian was greeted by residents of several nearby villages with folk music and wine. The reception was more lukewarm in Echmiadzin despite the fact that several thousand people turned out for the presidential rally there. Some of them claimed that they were ordered to do so by the local administration.
“Eighty percent of these people are not going to vote for him. This is just a theatrical performance,” said one man who refused to give his name.
“Very few of us came here voluntarily,” said another man who presented himself as a “mid-level” government official. “It is the authorities that forced me to show up for this rally.”