The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe must answer “some questions” raised by the Armenian authorities before it can scrutinize controversial constitutional amendments drafted by them, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said late on Thursday.
Pashinian appeared to criticize the Strasbourg-based legal watchdog as he again defended his drive to replace most members of Armenia’s Constitutional Court in an interview with Armenian Public Television. He also reiterated his claims that those judges remain linked to the “former corrupt authorities.”
He was asked why his administration did not send the draft amendments to the Venice Commission before putting them on a referendum scheduled for April 5.
“During my latest visit to Germany I had discussions regarding this situation with many partners and I can say that they are surprised that during that transformation period in Armenia such processes took place,” Pashinian replied in an apparent reference to equally controversial constitutional changes implemented by Armenia’s former leadership from 2015-2018.
“I brought our European partners’ attention to the fact that that whole process, which essentially was a clear case of abuse of the law relating to that transformation, took place under the watchful eye of the Venice Commission,” he went on. “And I think that before we address that issue the Venice Commission must answer some questions, including from our European partners.”
“We are now in discussions with European institutions to understand how to approach this issue,” he added without elaborating.
Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio has repeatedly expressed serious concern at the Armenian government’s “open conflict” with the Constitutional Court. The nine-member court’s chairman, Hrayr Tovmasian, and six other judges, who were installed by the former governments, have faced strong pressure from the current authorities to resign.
In a February 3 statement, Buquicchio reaffirmed the commission’s view that the high court judges must be free to decide whether to accept early retirement offered by the government. “I call again on all sides to exercise restraint and to de-escalate this worrying situation in order to ensure the normal operation of the constitution of Armenia,” read the statement issued following Pashinian’s renewed verbal attacks on Tovmasian.
The standoff has also prompted concern from the two Armenia co-rapporteurs of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). They said “political players” in the South Caucasus state should “refrain from actions and statements that could be perceived as exerting pressure on the judiciary.”
The co-rapporteurs, Andrej Sircelj and Kimmo Kiljunen, also reacted to the Pashinian administration’s ensuing decision to try to oust the judges through the referendum. In a February 6 statement, they urged the authorities in Yerevan to send the draft amendments to the Venice Commission for examination “as soon as possible.”
Representatives of the two opposition parties represented in the Armenian parliament similarly said that requesting a Venice Commission opinion on the proposed changes is essential for the legitimacy of the process. Pashinian’s political allies countered, however, that the authorities are not obliged to consult with the Council of Europe’s legal experts.
Visiting Germany last week, Pashinian met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejcinovic Buric. Merkel cited the Venice Commission’s role in ongoing “renewal process” in Armenia, while Pejcinovic Buric spoke of “concerns” about political developments in the country. Few other details of their talks with Pashinian were made public.
The Venice Commission has not commented on the upcoming Armenian referendum so far.