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Armenia: Constitution Deal in Sight

Pressure from the Council of Europe may force President Kocharian to water down his presidential powers.
By Victoria Abraamian

The Armenian government and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission have reached a provisional deal to break a deadlock over stalled constitutional reform.


The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, of which Armenia is a member, had strongly criticised the country for sticking to an undemocratic constitution. Further criticism had come from the Armenian parliamentary opposition, which has boycotted plenary sessions of parliament for two years.


Now the authorities have agreed to work on a new draft constitution for debate in parliament in August which will be put to a national referendum before the end of November.


The Venice Commission, which gives expert advice on constitutional matters, had expressed concerns about three parts of the constitution. In particular, they proposed abolishing the president’s right to sack the prime minister unilaterally and that the new premier should be appointed with the approval of a majority in parliament. It also wanted to see the end of presidential power over judges, and requested that the mayor of Yerevan – the capital city home to a third of the population - become an elected official.


“Power is very attractive and it’s hard to give it up,” noted Armen Rustamian, a parliamentary deputy from the pro-government Dashnaktsutiun party. “I don’t want to name names, however after constitutional reforms many will lose their levers of influence. By following the agreements that have been made Armenia really can get itself out of a constitutional crisis.”


Matyas Eorsi, leader of the Liberal Democratic and Reformers’ Group in PACE, was less shy of naming names. He told the session, “The only man abusing his powers and blocking the process of constitutional reforms in Armenia is President Robert Kocharian. Reading the report on constitutional reforms in Armenia you get the impression that the draft constitution is not uniting but dividing the nation.”


Most observers agree that if the government keeps to its part of the deal, this will mark a political climb-down for the president.


“If all the demands of the Venice Commission are adopted, then Kocharian’s power will definitely be weaker,” said Hovsep Khurshudian, political analyst with the National Centre for Strategic Studies in Yerevan. “But let’s not forget that even the most ideal constitution can be violated.”


A weakening of presidential power on all these fronts will diminish Kocharian’s ability to dominate the country and ensure success for his chosen successor when his second and final presidential team ends in 2008.


Armenia’s much-criticised constitution dates back to 1995. At the time doubts were cast on the legitimacy of the referendum under which it was adopted. On coming to power in 1998, Kocharian raised the issue of the need to change the constitution, but so far all attempts to do so have failed.


On becoming a member of the Council of Europe in 2001, Armenia pledged to change its constitution but voters rejected draft changes put to a vote in 2003.


Since then the council and the Armenian government have begun to clash openly, both about the timetable for changes and their substance. This culminated with a statement by the Venice Commission on May 26, which expressed deep disappointment with the lack of progress made by the governing coalition.


Commission members then visited Armenia and signed a memorandum with the Armenian government. At the June 23-24 session of PACE, during discussion of the latest draft, discontented deputies passed a resolution calling on the Armenian authorities to heed the Venice Commission’s proposals.


Jerzy Jaskierna, rapporteur for the parliamentary assembly of the council on Armenia’s constitutional reforms, told the session, “The constitutional reforms ought to be rooted in an atmosphere of mutual trust and dialogue between the authorities and the opposition.”


The Armenians must now present the Venice Commission with a new improved package of constitutional reforms drawn up on the basis of its recommendations by July 7. The new document will be written by presidential representative Armen Harutiunian, Justice Minister David Harutiunian, the head of Armenia’s delegation to PACE, Tigran Torosian, and other members of the governing coalition. This will then be put to a second reading in parliament by August 20. A public referendum to approve it should then be held before November.


The Armenian parliamentary opposition is now cautiously optimistic. “It’s obvious that if the president’s hyper-powers are removed and an independent judicial system is set up, we will register progress,” said leading opposition deputy Shavarsh Kocharian.


“If the comments and proposals of the Venice Commission are included in the draft constitutional reforms then we are ready to suspend our boycott of work in parliament that we began in 2003 and take part in the work on constitutional reforms in the National Assembly,” said Shavarsh Kocharian, who is no relation to the president.


“I think it would be very dubious to hold a referendum without mutual agreement,” agreed pro-government deputy Armen Rustamian. “We have really done serious work and we can’t turn back halfway.”


In a June 28 meeting with Ambassador Roland Wegener, a German diplomat who represents the council’s committee of ministers' monitoring group, President Kocharian said, “The constitutional referendum will be adopted as a result of collaboration. It will defend constitutional reforms and convince society that that the referendum will be a good change for the future.”


At the PACE session, many delegates from different countries warned that Armenia will be in serious trouble if the constitutional reform process fails again. The assembly has the right to strip Armenia of its voting rights or even suspend its membership altogether, although this was not put on the agenda.


“If Armenia fails in a referendum a second time then we will begin to have big problems with the Council of Europe,” warned analyst Khurshudian.


Victoria Abraamian works for the Ayb-Fe news agency in Yerevan.