By Armen Zakarian in Strasbourg and Ruzanna Stepanian
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) expressed on Thursday serious concern about the course of constitutional reform in Armenia, warning that Yerevan must accept all relevant recommendations of the respected human rights organization.
In a resolution, the Strasbourg-based assembly reminded that curtailing sweeping powers enjoyed by President Robert Kocharian was a key condition for the country’s acceptance into the prestigious club of European democracies in 2001. It also noted that the Armenian authorities have repeatedly missed Council of Europe deadlines for drafting amendments to the constitution and should put them to a referendum no later than next November.
“The Assembly is deeply concerned that the delay in agreeing and adopting the constitutional amendments is holding back Armenia's progress towards European democratic norms and standards in key areas of political life,” reads the resolution.
The PACE specifically urged Kocharian and his ruling coalition to comply with the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission that would give more powers to the Armenian parliament, strengthen judicial independence and make the mayor of Yerevan an elected official.
The authorities’ refusal to incorporate them into their package of draft amendments approved by the Armenian parliament in the first reading last month drew sharp criticism from the Venice Commission. Armenian leaders reportedly promised to accept the proposed changes during talks with visiting Venice Commission officials in Yerevan on June 2.
The PACE commended them for that but insisted on a full compliance. “The Assembly insists that the final proposed amendments do comply with all the recommendations of the Venice Commission and are finally voted as such by the National Assembly,” says its resolution.
“It is important that we put some pressure on our Armenian friends,” said Erik Jurgens of the PACE’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. “If the same problems occur, the Venice Commission will question whether it should continue to advise the Armenian Government,” he warned.
Another parliamentarian, Matyas Eorsi, strongly criticized the draft amendments put forward by Kocharian and his allies. “The most severe provision is that legislative power should be nominated by the executive and the judiciary appointed by the executive, but I remind the Armenian people that that was tried before,” Eorsi said.
“It was tried by Stalin and his country suffered a lot. The Armenian people should not repeat that mistake,” he added.
The Council of Europe recommendations have been backed by the Armenian opposition. “I would like to reaffirm in this Assembly the fact that, despite the boycott of parliamentary sittings, the opposition is ready to co-operate regarding the constitutional reforms, on condition that the recommendations of the Venice Commission are accepted completely,” one of its leaders, Shavarsh Kocharian, said during Thursday’s debate in Strasbourg.
However, other opposition leaders said acceptance of those recommendations would not necessarily mean an end to the long-running opposition boycott of parliament sessions. One of them, Victor Dallakian, said the Armenian authorities should also meet opposition demands for the punishment of officials involved in vote rigging and human rights abuses.
“My personal view is that the opposition should not aim to return to the parliament,” Dallakian told RFE/RL in Yerevan.
Another prominent oppositionist, Vazgen Manukian, claimed that the authorities will resort to “petty provincial tricks” to avoid imposing serious curbs on Kocharian’s powers.
The PACE, meanwhile, expressed “regret” at the continuing opposition boycott and urged the two rival camps to work together on constitutional reform.
In addition, the assembly rejected an amendment to its resolution, sponsored by Turkish lawmakers, that would call on Armenia to reaffirm “international borders with all her neighbors” with a corresponding constitutional clause. A PACE body monitoring Armenia’s compliance with membership commitments opposed the amendment.