Political Crisis Underlines Need for Constitutional Reform in Armenia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 81

Former Armenian president Robert Kocharyan

The government in Yerevan, formed by Nikol Pashinyan after the “Velvet Revolution” and snap parliamentary elections in 2018, is apparently facing its first serious crisis. Specifically, the start of the trial of former president Robert Kocharyan (in office in 1998–2008) and some other officials charged with violations of the constitutional order (see EDM, August 8, 2018; April 26, 2019) has underlined the need for profound reforms to the Armenian constitution and some state institutions. At the same time, this high-profile case has given rise to renewed attempts by the political opposition to discredit Prime Minister’s Pashinyan’s cabinet, which may ultimately instigate a long-term crisis in the country.

Kocharyan’s trial began on May 13. And the first consideration before the court was whether the defendant should remain in custody during the judicial proceedings. Kocharyan’s supporters, with active backing by the TV5 television company and other media outlets allegedly under Kocharyan’s control by proxy, managed to pack the courtroom and stage a vocal demonstration outside. The protesters claimed, in line with earlier propagandist allegations by several Russian media sources (see EDM, April 26), that Kocharyan was a “political prisoner.” The former Armenian president himself exhibited contemptuous behavior in the courtroom, particularly toward the state prosecutor (1in.am, May 16).

Notably, the de facto “president” of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (the Armenian-backed breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Karabakh), Bako Sahakyan, and his predecessor, Arkadi Ghukasyan, expressed support for Kocharyan, apparently as an attempt to influence the court’s decision. The duo had called upon the judge to release Kocharyan before the trial even began (Azatutyun.am, May 7), while some of their subordinates openly rebuked Pashinyan’s cabinet (1in.am, May 11). On May 16, Sahakyan and Ghukasyan appeared before the court in person, offering personal guarantees that Kocharyan would not attempt to evade justice if released from jail (Azatutyun.am, May 16). On May 18, the judge ruled to release Kocharyan. Two days later, the judge decided not to proceed with any more hearings, sending the case to the Constitutional Court in order to determine if the case was admissible (Panarmenian.net, May 20). The judge’s actions, thus, overruled the motions filed by the state prosecutor and attorneys representing claimants whose relatives had died on March 1, 2008. On that day, then-president Kocharyan had ordered army units to attack demonstrators protesting election fraud. Instead, the judge’s ruling seemed to side with Kocharyan’s earlier claim that he enjoyed immunity as, 11 years ago, he had acted within the scope of presidential power.

The decision appeared to indicate that Prime Minister Pashinyan’s determination to abstain from the old practice of instructing judges on their rulings had not been sufficient to ensure true independence of the courts. Other actors have maintained their connections and means of leverage and proved their willingness to use them. Virtually all acting judges in Armenia today were appointed by Pashinyan’s adversaries—Kocharyan and the previous president, Serzh Sargsyan, who was ousted by last year’s revolution.

In the aftermath of the latest ruling on Kocharyan, Pashinyan demanded an immediate vetting of all national judges, including such measures as the complete disclosure of judges’ political connections, property status, as well as their personal and professional qualities. All judges whose verdicts violated defendants’ rights and were overturned by the European Court of Human Rights, resulting in compensation having to be paid by the state, would need to be sacked. The prime minister’s order also called for the introduction of various transitional justice mechanisms and amendments to the constitution, if needed. Pashinyan further implied that the authorities of Karabakh involved themselves in a plot against the Armenian government. As such, he declared that the parliament would form a special commission to investigate the circumstances of the April 2016 “Four-Day War” against Azerbaijan that broke out along the Line of Contact with Karabakh (Primeminister.am, May 20). After Pashinyan’s statement, the chair of the Highest Judicial Council (a body created in 2018, shortly before the revolution, responsible for guaranteeing judges’ impartiality), Gagik Harutyunyan, resigned from his post (Panarmenian.net, May 24).

The current crisis in Armenia—involving the unreformed judiciary possibly being used as a political tool by the former regime—seems to be the consequence of the Pashinyan government postponing some fundamental reforms. Armenia’s Constitutional Court and a number of other institutions remain overwhelmingly controlled by the former regime’s acolytes, who cannot be removed unless they resign or the constitution is changed. Although Pashinyan demanded constitutional amendments during and immediately after the Velvet Revolution (Armenpress.am, August 17, 2018), more recently he suggested “focusing on an economic revolution rather than amending the constitution” (Aysor.am, March 19), even though his faction currently controls a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority. Pashinyan’s ruling party could, thus, have implemented the needed constitutional reforms without waiting for a serious crisis to evolve. But it failed to act.

Prime Minister Pashinyan may finally be realizing just how fleeting his “window of opportunity” to carry out large-scale systemic changes may be. But at the same time, the government’s adversaries have also been expanding their attempts to destabilize the situation, using their financial and media resources. The usual propaganda (see EDM, April 26)—including, charges of the “betrayal of traditional values” and “selling out Karabakh” (intensified by the dispute with the de facto leadership of Karabakh)—is now being further supplemented by narratives coming from well-financed, falsely independent analysts and “fact-checking groups” actively promoted by TV5 and other propaganda outlets. Moreover, one of Russia’s top propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov, the host of a prime time talk show on Rossiya 1 TV, recently ranted on air that “people who never went into a battle” were attempting to imprison the “war hero” Kocharyan (RIA Novosti, May 29). Less conventional methods have also been apparent, such as hacking a Peruvian musician’s Facebook account and using his money to pay for online ads attacking the Armenian government (Media.am, May 18).

The current political crisis in Armenia is raising pressure on Pashinyan to speed up constitutional reforms and to more effectively replace the old regime’s loyalists and associates. While radical reforms will likely be painful, postponing them further could lead to even more complications, ultimately undermining the confidence of Pashinyan’s voter base.