In a surprise move, Justice Minister Rustam Badasian has asked the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe to advise his government on its standoff with Armenia’s Constitution Court.
Seven of the court’s nine judges installed by former Armenian governments have faced strong pressure from Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s administration to resign. Pashinian has accused them -- and Constitutional Court Chairman Hrayr Tovmasian in particular -- of maintaining ties to the “corrupt former regime” and impeding judicial reforms.
Tovmasian and opposition figures have dismissed these claims, saying that Pashinian is simply seeking to gain control over the country’s highest court.
Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio has repeatedly expressed serious concern at the government’s “open conflict” with the Constitutional Court. “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,” he said in a February 3 statement that followed Pashinian’s renewed verbal attacks on Tovmasian.
A few days later, Pashinian’s political team decided to hold a referendum on April 5 on draft constitutional changes that would end the powers of Tovmasian and the six other judges refusing to resign.
The two opposition parties represented in the Armenian parliament criticized the proposed amendments, saying that they run counter to other articles of the constitution. They also urged the authorities to send them to the Venice Commission for examination.
Pashinian’s political allies countered, however, that the authorities are not obliged to consult with the Council of Europe’s legal watchdog.
For his part, the prime minister implicitly criticized the Venice Commission on February 20. He said the Strasbourg-based watchdog must answer “some questions” raised by the Armenian authorities before it can scrutinize the constitutional changes sought by them.
The Armenian Justice Ministry announced late on Wednesday that Badasian has sent to the Venice Commission “questions regarding the resolution of the ongoing crisis over the Armenian Constitutional Court.”
A ministry statement did not specify those questions. It said they were contained in a letter sent by the minister to Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejcinovic Buric.
Badasian shed little light on the questions when he spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Thursday. He said only that the government is seeking European “expert opinion” on existing constitutional provisions relating to the tenure of Constitutional Court judges.
The appeal to Strasbourg came amid growing uncertainty about the conduct of the referendum which was postponed when Pashinian’s government declared a state of emergency on March 16 to contain the spread of coronavirus in Armenia.
Under Armenian law, no elections or referendums can be held during the state of emergency. The government on Thursday extended it by another month, until June 13.
Badasian did not exclude that the authorities may eventually cancel the referendum and try to end the “constitutional crisis” through the parliament controlled by Pashinian’s My Step bloc. “No option can be ruled out given the impact of coronavirus on all areas of life, and the holding of elections and referendums obviously cannot be an exception,” he said.