- Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has returned to proposals for extensive constitutional reforms, citing the need for a new constitution to enhance Armenia’s competitiveness amid changing geopolitical conditions.
- Armenian officials have asserted that the primary focus of constitutional reforms is to restore the Armenian population’s faith in the document and the government.
- Opposition voices believe Pashinyan is succumbing to Baku’s requests that Armenia change its constitution as part of any peace agreement.
On January 18, six years after the street protests that brought him to power in 2018, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan raised the issue of reforming the country’s constitution during a meeting with the Armenian Ministry of Justice (Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, January 19). The constitution was originally introduced under Levon Ter-Petrosyan in 1995 and controversially amended under his successors, Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan (Azatutyun.am, November 7, 2005; Azatutyun.am, November 14, 2015). Pashinyan stated that constitutional reforms are needed to make Armenia “more competitive in the new geopolitical environment.” The opposition claims that talk of constitutional reform comes under pressure from Azerbaijan in the stalled peace talks (Azatutyun.am, November 14, 2019; The Armenian Weekly, January 24). Earlier, the Armenian premier claimed that constitutional reforms would give Yerevan a more stable position in negotiations with Baku (see EDM, January 25).
Pashinyan’s initial efforts to hold a referendum to amend the constitution in April 2020 were indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the declaration of a state of emergency in Armenia (Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, March 16, 2020). As a result, a crucial amendment to strip constitutional court judges appointed under previous governments passed with a two-thirds majority in the Armenian National Assembly without a popular referendum (JAMnews, June 3, 2020). The opposition charged that the move was unconstitutional as the referendum could have been rescheduled to a later date.
The push for extensive constitutional reforms has remained a priority for the current Armenian government. After the canceled referendum, Pashinyan noted that the population did not trust the existing constitution in July 2020. He argued that a new constitution should be drafted and released for public discussion, with a referendum scheduled for the following year (Azatutyun.am, July 5, 2020). Armenia’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War in late 2020, however, postponed the referendum again in favor of snap parliamentary elections (Azatutyun.am, June 24, 2021).
Initially, the government had planned to change the country’s system of governance back to a presidential system but soon changed its mind (Azatutyun.am, December 5, 2022). In comments reminiscent of when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili changed Georgia’s national anthem, national flag, and state emblem following the 2003 Rose Revolution, Pashinyan criticized Armenian schoolchildren for naming Mount Ararat (Ağrı) in neighboring Türkiye as the “highest mountain in Armenia.” He emphasized the need for a better understanding of the bounds of Armenia’s sovereign territory (Arka, May 22, 2023). “Look at what is depicted on our coat of arms,” Pashinyan said to parliament, referring to the inclusion of Noah’s ark on Mount Ararat (Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, June 15, 2023). “Dear colleagues, the topic is actually very serious because the issue we are discussing is … in our thoughts [and] our psychology.” In reference to the current coat of arms, he posited whether “the real Armenia [should] serve the historical Armenia or should the historical Armenia serve the real Armenia,” foreshadowing his current proposal of a constitutional overhaul and rethinking of the country’s national symbols.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev responded to Pashinyan’s comments, warning of possible revanchism in Armenia. Aliyev’s comments led some critics of the Armenian premier to allege a connection between the two leaders that would undermine Armenian sovereignty. Aliyev raised the issue of territorial claims on Türkiye enshrined in the Armenian Constitution as the specter of possible revanchism. In 2021, he asserted, “Armenia should change its constitution to abandon territorial claims against Turkey … and normalize relations with the country (Horizon Weekly, January 22).
At the heart of the matter is the inclusion of a preamble in successive constitutions directly referring to the 1990 Armenian Declaration of Independence. That document emphasizes the 1989 joint declaration on the “Reunification of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Mountainous Region of Karabakh” (Parliament of the Republic of Armenia, accessed January 24). It also refers to “achieving international recognition of the 1915 genocide in Ottoman Turkey and Western Armenia.”
Pashinyan reiterated the need for a new constitution at the beginning of this year, emphasizing the importance of input from the Armenian people. Some analysts believe this desire is rooted in the need to restore public confidence in the constitution after the 2015 referendum (Hetq.am, January 19, 2024). Others consider that this development could relate to changing how prime ministers will be appointed in the future, as Pashinyan’s approval ratings have declined significantly (Azatutyun.am, January 22, 2024).
Many speculate that Pashinyan’s re-emphasis of constitutional reforms comes from growing pressure to sign a peace agreement with Azerbaijan. As a result, some of his critics now view any constitutional changes as a direct result of Baku’s demands to remove the controversial preamble (JAMnews, January 22). On the 33rd anniversary of Armenia’s Declaration of Independence, Pashinyan fueled such speculation yet again. “Before the 2020 war and especially after the war, I read the text of the declaration many times,” he announced (Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, August 28, 2023). “I must admit that my postwar readings are somewhat different from pre-war readings. … It is about the confrontational narrative with[in] the regional environment that [has] kept us in constant conflicts with our neighbors.”
The Armenian government denies the opposition’s accusations that it intends to change “the constitution at the request of Baku” (Azatutyun.am, January 25, 2024). Referring to the draft constitutional concept, Daniel Ioannisyan, a member of the Constitutional Reforms Council, has confirmed that there are no plans to remove the offending preamble. He also claimed that the main focus of constitutional reforms is to restore the Armenian public’s faith in the document. Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan admitted that Baku has frequently raised the issue of territorial claims in the constitution with Yerevan, acknowledging that “there will definitely be discussions.” Ioannisyan did concede that it cannot be ruled out that, in the future, the preamble could be removed (Azatutyun.am, January 22, 2024). Other observers, however, wonder if doing so could further delay an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace agreement (Commonspace.eu, January 26, 2024).
The extensive reforms to the Armenian Constitution come with key geopolitical implications. On the one hand, removing some of the territorial claims could facilitate real progress in peace talks. On the other hand, potentially doing so at the behest of Baku would do little to infuse public confidence in the new constitution. The reforms that Yerevan does agree on and the way they are implemented will undoubtedly have a significant impact on prospects for peace and stability in the South Caucasus.