Judge Vahe Grigorian has urged the Armenian parliament to step in to resolve what he describes as a crisis in the Constitutional Court whose chairman’s legitimacy is disputed by the government.
Grigorian, whom parliament elected judge of the Constitutional Court earlier this year, immediately called for the election of a new chairman of the high court, arguing that this is the requirement of a new constitution adopted through a nationwide referendum in 2015.
The claim was backed by the Armenian government as Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian accused Constitutional Court head Hrayr Tovmasian of having struck a political deal with former President Serzh Sarkisian to “privatize” the country’s highest court shortly before constitutional amendments were to fully take effect in April 2018.
Tovmasian hit back at the accusations, claiming political persecution. Last month members of the Constitutional Court rejected the parliament’s demand to remove Tovmasian and elect a new chairman.
Also last month Armenia’s law-enforcement authorities launched an inquiry into a possible “usurpation of power” by a “group of officials” that allegedly accompanied Tovmasian’s election as chairman of the Constitutional Court in March 2018. A former senior official has been arrested and charged as part of the investigation but not legal action has yet been taken against Tovmasian, who claims constitutional immunity and insists he can be prosecuted and arrested only with the Constitutional Court’s consent.
Talking to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am) on Sunday, Grigorian said that in the situation like this the onus is on the parliament to enforce the constitutional amendments that he insists imply the election of new judges in the Constitutional Court. “I strongly believe that the best way to solve the issue of the constitutionality and democratic legitimacy of the Constitutional Court envisaged by amendments adopted in the December 2015 referendum is to elect new judges to that court, which does not exclude nominations from among the existing members if they so desire. I have spoken openly about this. This will completely solve the problem,” he said.
The Constitutional Court has nine members. Only two of them, including Grigorian, were elected after 2015 constitutional amendments were fully enforced. Grigorian now believes that new judges should be elected in compliance with the new constitution, as besides him and Arman Dilanian all others have the status of members rather than judges of the Constitutional Court in accordance with the old constitution.
Other members of the Constitutional Court do not share this approach. Alvina Gyulumian, who has sat on the Court since 2014, says: “There are no vacancies in the Constitutional Court at present.” Earlier, in an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service Gyulumian said that she saw no “crisis” in the Constitutional Court, but rather a “conflict between personalities.”
Still, Grigorian insists that it is the parliament that must play a key role in “resolving the crisis”. “The National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia is the holder of the parliamentary sovereignty of the republic, and the crisis in the Constitutional Court is viewed from the point of view of the protection of democracy in Armenia and the elimination of constitutional security issues that are directly related to the constitutional powers and responsibilities of the republic’s parliament,” he said.
Grigorian added that he has proposed some intermediate solutions. “The recognition of the status quo and the elimination of all status differences between the members and the judges of the Constitutional Court, which naturally exist and are recognized even by the chairman of the Venice Commission, up to filling the vacancies of new judges by nominating new candidates and electing judges. The solution can also be found by amending some provisions of the Constitution and by various other means,” he said.
Late last month, Gianni Buquicchio, the head of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, expressed serious concern over what he described as the Armenian government’s “open conflict” with the Constitutional Court and called for a renewed “normal operation” of Armenia’s constitution.
In a statement released on October 29, Buquicchio said all branches of the country’s government should respect each other’s “prerogatives, obligations and competences” set by Armenian law.
“If this is not done, if there lacks democratic culture and maturity, the functioning of the state institutions is compromised and the democratic, civil and economic progress of the society is jeopardized,” warned Buquicchio.
“I call on all sides to exercise restraint, mutual respect and constructive institutional cooperation in order to de-escalate this worrying situation and re-establish the normal operation of the constitution of Armenia,” the head of the Venice Commission said.