By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Armen Zakarian
Armenia’s largest opposition alliance dealt a serious blow to efforts to build broad-based political support for President Robert Kocharian’s constitutional reform on Monday, rejecting his newly revised draft amendments as cosmetic.
The leaders of the Artarutyun (Justice) bloc said the amendments sent by Yerevan to the Council of Europe on Friday fail to place serious curbs on sweeping powers enjoyed by the Armenian president. They also accused Kocharian and his governing coalition of failing to fully honor their commitments to the Venice Commission, a Council of Europe body monitoring legal reform in member states.
However, the Venice Commission secretary, Gianni Buquicchio, said on Monday that Armenian authorities seem to be complying with the Strasbourg-based organization’s recommendations on constitutional reform. “We received the [revised constitutional] draft last Friday and are now examining it,” Buquicchio told RFE/RL from Strasbourg. “At first glance, it seems that the authorities have taken into account our suggestions.”
“My first impression is that the draft is a good one, but we have to examine it carefully,” he said.
Leaders of the nine opposition parties making up Artarutyun discussed the revised amendments behind the closed doors for about three hours and arrived at a different conclusion.
“We analyzed the document that was sent to the Venice Commission,” one of them, Shavarsh Kocharian, told reporters afterward. “Our position is clear and unanimous: The three key demands that were made by the opposition have not been met. Only partial steps have been taken.”
“Everyone agreed that the coalition sent a document to the Venice Commission that doesn’t meet the alliance’s demands,” confirmed another Artarutyun figure, Smbat Ayvazian. “It is therefore meaningless to discuss such documents with this regime.”
The latest version of Kocharian’s constitutional reform was supposed to stem from an agreement reached by the Venice Commission and senior Armenian officials in Strasbourg late last month. The latter pledged to give more powers to the Armenian parliament, limit Kocharian’s authority to appoint judges and make the mayor of Yerevan an elected official.
Under that agreement, the Armenian president would be stripped of his discretionary authority to sack prime ministers and only the National Assembly would have such authority. A relevant provision was added to Kocharian’s draft.
But Artarutyun leaders pointed out that it is offset by the authorities’ refusal to drop another clause that would empower the head of state to dissolve the parliament if his prime ministerial candidates are twice rejected by lawmakers. They also claimed that the authorities are prepared to put only symbolic restrictions on the presidential power to appoint and sack judges and have not committed to holding direct elections of the Yerevan mayor.
The draft sent to Strasbourg allows for the mayor’s election by an elected city council -- an option clearly preferred by the authorities.
The Venice Commission will pass judgment on the draft by July 20. It is expected that the proposed amendments will be debated and passed by the Armenian parliament in late August before being put to a referendum this fall.
“I would say that I am optimistic because I am seeing a very good approach from many Armenian political forces,” Buquicchio said, speaking before opposition reaction to the amendments was made public.
Buquicchio also urged Armenian parties and the government to mount an “awareness campaign” ahead of the referendum. “All the political forces interested in revising the constitution and having Armenia as a full-fledged democratic country must explain to the population of Armenia the reason for a ‘yes’ vote,” he said.
Artarutyun’s stance on the issue makes this all but impossible. Furthermore, it raises the prospect of another opposition bid for regime change. Some Artarutyun leaders earlier threatened to turn the anticipated constitutional referendum into a vote of no confidence in Kocharian.
To pass, the proposed amendments must be backed by a majority of those taking part in the referendum that make up at least one third of Armenia’s 2.4 million eligible voters. A high voter turnout will therefore be critical. The authorities already failed to pass that threshold during the previous constitutional referendum held in May 2003.
Many Armenians apparently remain indifferent to constitutional reform which the Council of Europe says is vital for making their country more democratic. An opinion poll released earlier this month suggested that most residents of Yerevan would not bother to vote if the referendum was held now.
The Council of Europe hopes that a consensus-based reform would not only end the public apathy but also ease persisting political tensions in Armenia. Accordingly, it has urged the two main opposition groups to end their long-running boycott of parliament. One of those groups, the National Unity Party (AMK), said after the Strasbourg deal that its nine deputies will return to the 131-member assembly next month. The AMK has not yet reacted to the revised amendments.
Artarutyun leaders, meanwhile, ruled out an end to their boycott of parliament sessions. “No member of the bloc sees the need to even discuss that issue because the reasons that led to the boycott have not been eliminated,” said Shavarsh Kocharian.