Armenia's ruling coalition and opposition appear poised to reach a consensus on amendments to the country's constitution. The breakthrough comes after persistent intervention by the Council of Europe and could signal an end to the opposition's 18-month boycott of parliament.
Constitutional reform is a pivotal political issue for Armenia. Overtures to western organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union have picked up pace in recent years and Yerevan appears eager to throw its lot more decidedly with the West. Making the case that the government is committed to democratic reform constitutes a key part of that process.
At a June 28 press conference with Shavarsh Kocharian, a member of the opposition Ardarution (Justice) bloc, Tigran Torosian, deputy chairman of the National Assembly, announced that the ruling coalition and opposition are very close to a consensus on a draft constitution that includes provisions recommended by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional law. In a statement released that same day, Roland Wegener, chief of the Council of Europe's monitoring mission, described the accord reached with the Venice Commission a critical step for Armenia's ongoing democratization.
The changes advocated by the Venice Commission and opposition and accepted by the government cover three main areas. Under the Commission's recommendations, the president would no longer be able to dismiss the prime minister at will and a new prime minister would require the approval of a majority of parliament's members.
The provision is seen as essential for balancing the distribution of power between the president and the parliament. Constitutional amendments passed by the National Assembly in a first reading in May 2005 stipulated that the president may dissolve a newly elected parliament if that body twice fails to endorse presidential candidates for prime minister. The current constitution does not allow the National Assembly to be dissolved until one year after its election has passed.
The election of Yerevan's mayor presented a second key concession. Under Armenia's current constitution, the country is divided into 11 provinces (marzs), with governors appointed by the central government. Yerevan, home to roughly half of the country's population of 2.98 million, holds the status of a province. Apparently fearing the emergence of a powerful political rival, both Kocharian and Armenia's first president, Levon Ter-Petrossian (1991-1998), had favored keeping the mayorship an appointed position.
The third concession concerned the Council of Justice, a body that plays a key role in appointing judges. The government had initially refused to remove provisions from the draft constitution that name the president chairman of the council. The Council of Europe had recommended that such a change was necessary to establish the independence of judicial power.
After final changes are made to the document and approved by parliament in late August, the proposed constitution will be put to Armenian voters this November in a national referendum.
With the opposition already welcoming the government's decision to accept the Venice Commission's recommendations, both sides now appear optimistic about the course of political change. "It's too important that the referendum to be held in Armenia by November be crowned with success and Armenia receive a new chance for its development, [for the] extension of democracy, as a result of which the country will become a [leader] in the South Caucasus," Noyan Tapan news agency reported Torosian as saying in explaining the decision to adopt the Commission's proposals and work with the opposition.
If the draft submitted to the Venice Commission "completely corresponds to the memorandum and the requirements publicly put forward by the opposition are fulfilled," Shavarsh Kocharian stated, the opposition would take part in the parliamentary debates scheduled for August, when the draft constitution will be up for a second reading. The National Uft submitted to nity opposition faction has already declared that it will abandon its boycott of parliament to do likewise.
"The expected reforms . . . [are] a good ground for Armenia to be . . . able to [advance] in its development and to . . . differ from not only Azerbaijan, but, also, Georgia," Kocharian said.
President Robert Kocharian first proposed changes to Armenia's 1995 constitution upon coming to power in 1998, but the reforms have been a start-and-stop process until now.
The newfound agreement, however, came as the result of steady pressure. An earlier referendum in 2003, submitted by the government one year later than promised, failed to gain voters' support. Past delays in advancing constitutional reform prompted the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to include this issue as an urgent topic of discussion in its June 2005 session.
In a June 23 resolution during PACE's summer assembly, the body delivered a de facto ultimatum to Armenia for this latest draft: "The Assembly strongly believes that, for the sake of its own people and for the sake of its further European integration, Armenia cannot afford another failure of the constitutional referendum." The document calls on Armenia to hold a referendum on an amended constitution no later than November 20005 and for the opposition to end its boycott of parliament, launched following the disputed re-election of President Kocharian in 2003, and promote the Council of Europe's recommendations.
Armenia will resubmit its draft constitution to the Venice Commission by July 7 for further discussion.
However, numerous difficulties remain. Armenia's ruling coalition must approve the changes made based on the recommendations and send the document once again to the Venice Commission for approval.
Only after parliament approves the final draft document, will preparations for the November referendum begin. These include a public awareness campaign as well as work to remove irregularities from voter lists that have plagued past Armenian votes.
Getting Armenians to turn out for the vote, however, could prove the ultimate test. In a recent poll conducted by the private Vox Populi organization, only 29 percent of some 624 Yerevan residents definitely planned to take part or were likely to take part in the November referendum, Armenialiberty.org reported.
But for now, a lack of voter interest does not appear to figure into PACE strategy for working with the Kocharian administration. With an eye to encouraging Armenia's constitutional reform process, the assembly's June resolution simply urges the government "to provide for the coming into force of the constitutional reform as soon as reasonably possible."
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.