By Armen Zakarian
Leading legal experts from the Council of Europe met senior officials in Yerevan on Thursday to discuss their serious concerns regarding draft amendments to the Armenian constitution put forward by President Robert Kocharian and his governing coalition.
Gianni Buquicchio, the secretary of the organization’s Venice Commission, and members of its working group assessing the ongoing constitutional reform in Armenia stood by a strongly-worded statement issued by them last Friday. “In terms of preparing a good draft, the ball is on the Armenian authorities’ court,” Buquicchio told reporters after talks with the leadership of the Armenian parliament.
The statement criticized the Armenian authorities for failing to embrace key Venice Commission recommendations that would give more powers to the Armenian parliament, limit Kocharian’s authority to appoint judges and make the mayor of Yerevan an elected official. It warned that failure to accept those recommendations would seriously hamper Yerevan’s efforts at European integration.
Armenian coalition leaders have reacted negatively to the strong criticism. Some of them accused the Council of Europe of unjustly penalizing Armenia to counterbalance its anticipated criticism of human rights abuses in neighboring Azerbaijan.
But Buquicchio denied any political motives behind the Venice Commission statement. “I don’t agree with that at all,” he said. “It was a technical, legal statement.”
The Italian official described his delegation’s talks with speaker Artur Baghdasarian and other leaders of the Armenian parliament majority as productive. He said they agreed that Kocharian’s constitutional package will undergo another discussion with Venice Commission experts before being approved by the National Assembly in the final reading and put to a referendum.
The authorities have so far sent conflicting signals about their willingness to comply with the constitutional changes sought by the Venice Commission and endorsed by the Armenian opposition. “We are not rejecting what is presented by the Venice Commission,” Galust Sahakian, the parliamentary leader of the governing Republican Party, told RFE/RL. But he said those recommendations must be “adapted” to Armenian realities.
Asked how the commission will react if the existing constitutional package does not undergo serious changes, Buquicchio said, “We will again be disappointed and we will make a new statement.”
Buquicchio also hinted that October is the most like date for the planned constitutional referendum. “My dream is to see before the end of this year, possibly in October, a new constitution which is approved by all Armenian citizens regardless of their political beliefs,” he said.
“We also very much hope that all the political forces will participate and agree on this new constitution for Armenia,” he added in an apparent reference to the Armenian opposition’s boycott of parliament sessions and constitutional debates in particular.
The opposition urged on Tuesday Armenians to vote against Kocharian’s amendments, saying that they would “preserve the country’s autocratic system.”
(Photolur photo: Gianni Buquicchio.)