By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s two main opposition groups ended on Monday their boycott of the government-controlled parliament as it opened its autumn session with a debate on the country's commitments to European organizations.
The Artarutyun (Justice) alliance of Stepan Demirchian and Artashes Geghamian’s National Unity Party refused to attend the opening sessions of the new National Assembly in June in protest against serious irregularities reported during the May 25 legislative elections. Together they hold only 25 of the 131 parliament seats.
Demirchian, making his parliamentary debut, did not deliver any speeches and left it to veteran deputy Victor Dallakian to present Artarutyun’s first legislative initiatives. They called for protecting low-income families against utility fee increases and providing their schoolchildren with textbooks free of charge. The parliament majority loyal to President Robert Kocharian refused to include both initiatives on the parliament agenda, prompting sarcastic comments from Dallakian about the sincerity of its pledges to cooperate with the opposition.
Geghamian protested more angrily, threatening to resume the boycott. “If such an atmosphere persists, the National Unity Party will find it meaningless to attend sessions of the National Assembly,” he said.
Deputy speaker Tigran Torosian, who has repeatedly called for a dialogue with Kocharian’s opponents, was quick to assure the opposition minority that its initiatives will not be rejected out of hand in the future. “Let us consider this our first misunderstanding and not draw far-reaching conclusions,” he said. “I am hopeful that we will really work together.”
“I will do my best to work with the opposition in an atmosphere of effective dialogue,” parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian told reporters before opening the session earlier in the day. He said the pro-Kocharian and opposition deputies should cooperate in tackling poverty and corruption and turning Armenia into a “civilized European state.”
Artarutyun avoided, for now, demanding a debate on its draft amendments that would pave the way for a “referendum of confidence” in Kocharian which was suggested by Armenia’s Constitutional Court in the wake of this year’s disputed presidential election. Official results of the two-round vote gave victory to Kocharian. Artarutyun, however, insists that its rightful winner was Demirchian.
Geghamian’s party also refuses to recognize Kocharian’s reelection but has sounded cool towards the Artarutyun effort. The parliament majority, for its part, has made it clear that it will block any opposition effort to hold the referendum.
The assembly spent most of its first working day debating the ratification of the Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights which unconditionally abolishes the death penalty in peacetime. Most Artarutyun deputies, including Demirchian, oppose the ratification, defending a controversial legal clause that allows the execution of the five gunmen that seized the chamber in October 1999.
But none of the other factions, including Geghamian’s National Unity, now shares this view, making the ratification a forgone conclusion. The deputies will vote on it on Tuesday. The parliament leadership hopes that the move will deter the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly from sanctioning Yerevan over its handling of the 2003 elections.