Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 75

The Armenian authorities look set to miss a June deadline, set by the Council of Europe, for enacting sweeping amendments to Armenia’s controversial post-Soviet constitution. Officials in Yerevan admit that a nationwide referendum on constitutional changes put forward by President Robert Kocharian and his governing coalition may well be postponed until after the summer.

For months an ad hoc commission of the Armenian parliament has been trying to put the finishing touches on the package of amendments before their formal approval by the National Assembly. The process has clearly stalled in recent weeks under still-uncertain circumstances. Meeting with senior government officials and leaders of his loyal parliamentary majority on April 8, Kocharian expressed concern about the slowdown and stressed the need for a “high degree of mutual agreement” among his political allies.

Constitutional reform was one of the conditions for Armenia’s hard-won accession to the Council of Europe in January 2001. The country’s basic law has widely been criticized for vesting too many powers in the presidency ever since its adoption at a hotly disputed referendum in 1995. The Armenian president, for example, can single-handedly form governments, appoint and sack virtually all judges, and dissolve the legislature practically at will.

Kocharian pledged to curtail presidential authority in favor of the judicial and legislative branches when he came to power in 1998. But it was not until 2001 that the reform effort began in earnest. The Armenian opposition rejected Kocharian’s first constitutional package as cosmetic, and the changes failed to garner sufficient popular support at a referendum held concurrently with the May 2003 parliamentary elections.

Kocharian and three parties represented in his government have since been revising some of the original draft amendments in a bid to win greater public support for the reform. The preliminary version of their revised constitutional package was made public last November and prompted criticism from the so-called Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, which monitors legislative reform in the Strasbourg-based organization’s member countries.

The Venice Commission concluded in a December report that the proposed changes are one step back from Kocharian’s 2003 package and called for “more significant amendments.” It noted in particular that the Armenian parliament would remain “subordinated” to the president and play no role in the nomination and dismissal of prime ministers.

The Armenian opposition, which refuses to recognize Kocharian’s disputed 2003 reelection, has been even more critical. Opposition leaders have said all along that Kocharian lacks the legitimacy to initiate constitutional reform in the first place. Still, they announced in January that they are ready to support the reform if the authorities embrace three significant amendments. Those would empower the parliament to endorse prime-ministerial candidates nominated by the president, seriously limit the latter’s controversial authority to appoint judges, and make the mayor of Yerevan an elected official. The parliament majority effectively rejected the proposed deal.

All three amendments demanded by the opposition stemmed from the Venice Commission’s recommendations. Some local observers say the opposition offer was a ploy to embarrass the ruling regime and portray it as uncooperative before the Europeans. Kocharian and his allies may also have reached this conclusion.

Giving weight to this theory is the fact that the parliamentary commission on constitutional reform began making further changes in the package in February. Its chairman, Tigran Torosian, said on April 11 that the Armenian authorities are eager to meet all of the Venice Commission recommendations and cooperate with the opposition.

In a resolution adopted last September, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) urged Yerevan to hold the constitutional referendum in June at the latest. But the Armenian parliament, which must set a date for the vote, will start debating the issue only next month, making the deadline all but impossible to meet. Torosian noted that it “won’t be a tragedy” if the referendum is held a few months later. Other parliamentary majority leaders have indicated that it could be held simultaneously with local elections scheduled for October.

Another possible reason for the delay is that Kocharian apparently remains undecided about whether to step down after completing his second five-year term in 2008. The Armenian constitution bars him from seeking a third consecutive term. Kocharian aides have said repeatedly that the Armenian leader has no intention to remove that restriction. However, a lack of transparency in the work of Torosian’s commission only adds to the uncertainty.

A legal loophole allowing Kocharian to stay in power after 2008 would hardly please the West and could enable the opposition to mobilize greater popular support for its hitherto unsuccessful efforts to replicate anti-government uprisings across the former Soviet Union. Opposition leaders have already pledged to turn the constitutional referendum into a “referendum of confidence” in the Armenian leader. They have said that they are waiting for the “right moment” to make another push for regime change. They may well have election day in mind.

(Hayots Ashkhar, April 12; Presidential Press Service, April 8; RFE/RL Armenia Report, January 21, February 3)