By Emil Danielyan
The United States and the European Union on Wednesday threw their weight behind President Robert Kocharian’s revised constitutional amendments, saying that their passage at a referendum in November would facilitate Armenia’s democratization and European integration.
They also urged the Armenian opposition to end its long-running boycott of parliament and engage in a “constructive dialogue” with the authorities on the constitutional reform actively supported by another pan-European organization, the Council of Europe.
“We welcome the Venice Commission’s approval of the new draft constitution because we believe that the existing draft embodies democratic freedoms, values, safeguards which would bring Armenia closer to the European Union and to Europe as a whole,” British Ambassador to Armenia Thorda Abbott-Watt said, speaking on behalf of the EU.
“The United States welcomes the agreement by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe to the amendments to the constitution and looks forward to their adoption at the November national referendum,” said Anthony Godfrey, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Yerevan.
Speaking at a joint news conference, the two diplomats called on the Armenian government to build broad-based political support for the reform and explain its rationale to ordinary people. A recent opinion poll found widespread popular apathy to the issue.
“We hope that the government takes the appropriate steps to open the discussion to the public and gain the consensus necessary to ultimately pass a referendum,” Godfrey said.
That consensus requires an explicit opposition endorsement of the draft amendments put forward by Kocharian and his governing coalition. One of Armenia’s two main opposition groups, the National Unity Party (AMK), is likely to urge supporters to vote for the amendments. However, the more popular and influential Artarutyun (Justice) alliance has made its support for the effort conditional on the authorities agreeing to more serious curbs on sweeping powers enjoyed by the Armenian president.
Artarutyun leaders are unhappy with the final version of the proposed amendments that was made public after its positive assessment by the Venice Commission last month. They particularly object to a draft amendment that would empower the head of state to dissolve parliament if it twice rejects his prime ministerial nominees.
The opposition bloc also wants an end to Kocharian’s tight grip on state bodies regulating TV and radio broadcasting in Armenia. Such changes are also demanded by Armenia’s Human Rights Ombudsman and leading media associations.
While not objecting to more changes in the constitutional draft, the Western diplomats made it clear that the opposition too must be ready for concessions. “Nobody is going to get everything they want out of this piece of legislation,” said Abbott-Watt.
“If you are not playing the game, you can’t win it,” the British envoy, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, added. “So like the Council of Europe, we would all like to see all the opposition parties involved in the debate.”
However, some opposition groups, notably the most radical of the nine parties aligned in Artarutyun, say Kocharian lacks the legitimacy to amend the Armenian constitution in the first place. The Hanrapetutyun party also hoped to turn the constitutional referendum into a vote of no confidence in Kocharian and make another bid for regime change. Its leaders feel that by helping the Armenian leader expedite the reform the opposite would only legitimize his regime and let him complete his second term in office in 2008.
Opposition leaders and other skeptics also believe that the West should concentrate on ensuring a proper enforcement of Armenia’s existing laws that provide for free elections and guarantee human and civil rights. None of the elections held in Armenia since the Soviet collapse have been judged democratic by Western observers, and the U.S. State Department continues to describe Yerevan’s human rights record as “poor.”
“There aren’t any guarantees that there won’t be election frauds and human rights violations in the future,” admitted Godfrey. Nonetheless, Armenia does need to “make its rules of the game better,” the U.S. diplomat added.
Abbott-Watt, for her part, argued that Armenians themselves should make sure that their rulers respect the country’s constitution and laws. “This is your country, it is your constitution,” she said. “You have to protest when you see violations of the law. This is your responsibility.
“We watch as friends what is happening in Armenia. We look to a see a closer relationship between Armenia and the European Union, but we cannot do it for you.”
(Photolur photo: Thorda Abbott-Watt.)