Strong support from the Council of Europe's Venice Commission for Armenia's draft constitution promises to bolster President Robert Kocharian in his ongoing feud with the country's opposition. With a draft document that meets many of their earlier concerns, opposition leaders are now divided over what further course to take. Even while the largest opposition faction has announced plans to continue its boycott of parliament, most other opposition leaders now appear ready for cooperation with the government.
The amendments, designed largely to curtail the president's powers, would provide a "good basis" for bringing Armenia in line with "European standards" for human rights, democracy and rule of law, the Commission, which advises the Council on constitutional law matters, argued in an official statement on July 22. The draft promises to "pave the way for [Armenia's] further European integration," the Commission concluded.
With the Council of Europe now supporting the government's proposed amendments, the political ball has fallen into the opposition's court. The nine-party Ardarutiun (Justice) opposition bloc, the country's largest, which has boycotted parliament since early 2004, had earlier pledged that it would work alongside the government to secure support for the new constitution. Once parliament approves the draft in a third reading on August 29, the amendments will be submitted for approval in a nationwide referendum expected to be held in November 2005.
Such an alliance would be unprecedented. But whether or not it will ever materialize remains in doubt. Two parties within the Ardarutiun bloc Hanrapetitiun (Republic) and the National Democratic Alliance appear to be driving a split. On July 19, Hanrapetitiun released a statement that characterized a refusal by the opposition to work with the government as the best bet for ending President Robert Kocharian's rule. "Following the failure of the constitutional amendments in 2003, another failure will inevitably result in the inglorious end of the anti-popular regime," the statement read. By working with the government, Hanrapetitiun has argued, the opposition will only help Kocharin's administration retain power. "These authorities have no more resources for reforms," Smbat Ayvazian, a Hanrapetitiun board member, commented after a July 15 meeting of the Aradarutiun bloc. Arahsk Sadoyan, leader of the National Democratic Alliance, went further, terming one opposition member's support for cooperation with the authorities "betrayal."
Meanwhile, the majority of Ardarutiun members appear to have taken a more moderate position. A July 19 statement released by the parliamentary faction Ardarutiun reflected these views. The faction expressed willingness to participate "in the process of constitutional reforms and to present its proposals for improving the draft [constitution] given the full implementation of the principles put forward by the faction." The faction has listed implementation of the Venice Commission's January 2005 recommendations and measures to ensure a fair vote in the November constitutional referendum, including changes to the electoral code, punishment of those involved in vote rigging during the 2003 parliamentary elections and unrestricted broadcast coverage of the referendum, including reopening the private A1+ television station, as among its pre-conditions for participation in the constitutional reform process.
Some observers believe that these differences could lead to Hanrapetutiun eventually leaving the Ardarutiun bloc, a situation that would only worsen problems already known to exist between Ardarutiun and the influential opposition National Unity Party. National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian is generally believed to be more inclined to cooperate with the Kocharian administration than the leaders of Ardarutiun.
For now, though, opposition members maintain that a split is not yet inevitable. In an interview with the Aravot daily on July 19, National Unity Party Deputy Chairman Aleksan Kirakosian stressed that "[i]f the Ardarutiun bloc is broken, this will benefit the authorities, and for this reason any problems should be settled without noise rather than on the pages of newspapers."
At a July 19 press conference, Shavarsh Kocharian , an Aradarutiun bloc leader, seconded the call for reconciliation, citing a lack of information as one potential cause for Hanrapetutiun's opposition to the draft constitution. Further talks, he told reporters, may lead the faction to change its position. "The goal of Artarutiun has always been to change the rules of games in the country, and we will reach this goal."
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.