Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 167

Setting the stage for another government showdown with the opposition, Armenia’s parliament approved on September 1 the final version of President Robert Kocharian’s Western-backed constitutional amendments that will be put to a national referendum in November. The move came after three days of heated debates that highlighted a persisting deep divide between the ruling regime and its marginalized opponents.

Armenia’s two main opposition groups represented in the National Assembly, the Justice bloc and the National Unity Party (AMK), remained adamant in their rejection of the package of amendments drafted by Kocharian and his three-party governing coalition. They are now widely expected to exploit the issue for another attempt to stage an anti-government “revolution” in the country.

This defiant stance dashed Western hopes for a political consensus on constitutional reform, which the United States, the European Union, and especially the Council of Europe believe would foster Armenia’s democratization. The Council of Europe has for years pressed for major changes in the post-Soviet Armenian constitution, criticizing it for giving disproportionate powers to the president of the republic at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches of government. In fact, some of the key amendments limiting the sweeping presidential powers were incorporated into Kocharian’s constitutional draft under pressure from the Strasbourg-based organization. “Reform of the constitution is a precondition for the fulfillment of very important commitments and obligations accepted by all political parties in the Armenian parliament,” the president of its Parliamentary Assembly, Rene van der Linden, said ahead of a visit to Yerevan on August 19.

Opposition leaders, however, insist that the proposed changes are cosmetic. The Justice bloc in particular demanded that the authorities agree to more significant limits on the presidential powers, to make Armenian courts less dependent on the head of state, and to introduce direct elections for Yerevan’s mayor. The AMK, for its part, wanted government guarantees that a successful constitutional referendum would be followed by fresh presidential and parliamentary elections. Predictably, Kocharian rejected the opposition demands, while his allies were buoyed by the West’s endorsement of the amendments.

Opposition lawmakers also argued during the parliament debates that the constitutional reform would not lead to democratic change because the Armenian authorities have never respected the existing constitution that provides for free elections, human rights, and the rule of law. “The existing constitution has no provision that requires ballot box stuffing, fraud, and repressions in the conduct of elections,” said Stepan Demirchian, the top Justice leader and Kocharian’s main challenger in the last presidential ballot. “The reason why individuals that perpetrated vote falsifications and other high-level corrupt officials are not held accountable is not the flawed constitution but a few individuals’ penchant for clinging to power at any cost,” he added.

Indeed, none of the national elections held by the Kocharian administration were judged democratic by international observers, and there is no reason to expect it to hold more democratic polls in the future. The ruling clique will not risk losing political power or, more importantly, the enormous wealth amassed by its members. The Armenian opposition has no stake in this deeply flawed political order. Even a perfect constitution would leave its foundation untouched.

Hence, the opposition has renewed its earlier pledges to bring the wave of anti-government uprisings across the former Soviet Union to Armenia. The opposition leaders’ message to the electorate is simple: a “no” vote at the referendum would mean a vote of no confidence in Kocharian. But precisely how they would use it for carrying out their promised “revolution” is not clear. More obvious is the fact that the West is unlikely to support efforts at regime change in Armenia despite its strong endorsement of the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. John Evans, the U.S. ambassador in Yerevan, indicated in an interview on September 1 that Washington believes the Armenian opposition should let Kocharian complete his second five-year term in 2008. Kocharian’s disputed reelection in 2003 was strongly criticized by the U.S. State Department.

The parliamentary debates on the constitutional amendments, broadcast live by state television, were supposed to help Armenians understand what the reform sought by their leaders is all about. Most local commentators agree that the discussions failed to serve their purpose, as they degenerated into an exchange of bitter recriminations between pro-government deputies and some opposition leaders, notably AMK leader Artashes Geghamian. Opinion polls and anecdotal evidence suggest that popular apathy over the issue runs high.

To pass, the constitutional amendments have to be backed by a majority of referendum participants with a turnout of at least one-third of Armenia’s 2.4 million eligible voters. That is why opposition support is essential for a positive outcome in the November referendum. And that might explain why Kocharian was at pains to stress ahead of the parliament debates that success of the reform “can not mean a victory for the government and a defeat for the opposition.” “It can only be regarded … as a victory of our people and our country,” he said in televised remarks.

With public support for the effort looking problematic, the key question now is whether the Armenian authorities will allow a clean referendum or will try to push the amendments through with the kind of fraud that was reported in the last elections. Both options are fraught with serious political risks.

(Azg, September 2; Haykakan Zhamanak, September 1; RFE/RL Armenia Report, September 1, August 19; Armenian Public Television, August 24)