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Armenia: Constitution deal in sight

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  • Armenia: Constitution deal in sight


    Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR)
    June 30 2005

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

    By Victoria Abraamian in Strasbourg and Yerevan

    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

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