President Robert Kocharyan has unveiled constitutional amendments that seek to strengthen checks and balances on governmental authority. While most Armenians agree on the need to revise the 1995 Basic Law, the process of adopting constitutional amendments figures to arouse intense controversy.
In mid-July, Kocharyan fulfilled a campaign pledge to promote greater balance in government, officially presenting to Parliament a package of amendments that attempt to refine the responsibilities of the various branches of government. The amendments, which were prepared by a working group of legal experts, have four goals: improving human rights protection, delimiting presidential powers, enhancing judicial independence, and fostering local self-governance. Felix Thokhian, the head of the working group and a member of the Constitutional Court, said the amendments are substantial enough to name the resulting document a completely new version of the current Basic Law.
Kocharyan and most political party leaders oppose radical changes, such as the creation of a parliamentary republic. They argue that the principles enshrined in the 1995 Constitution have proven their viability, pointing out that Armenia has survived two constitutional crises: the early presidential elections in 1998(caused by resignation of Levon Ter-Petrossyan) and the terrorist act of October27, 1999. Kocharyan's amendments accordingly support the so-called "French model," which provides for stronger executive authority than in the American or British political systems.
The working group's most extensive changes, says Thokhian, concern human rights. The amendments entitle every Armenian to petition the Constitutional Court (in the present Constitution, only the president, the government and one third of the Parliament members are given such a right). It would also give citizens the right to appeal cases to international courts, and declares that the state must protect everyone within its borders, whether or not that person is Armenian. These measures adopt common international principles.
In addition, the amendments would reduce presidential power. Until now, Armenia's president has basically controlled not only the executive, but, to a significant extent, the judicial branch. Kocharyan's amendments would restrict his duties mainly to international affairs, arbitration involving disputes among the branches of government, and command of the armed forces. Other prerogatives would revert to the Prime Minister.
The proposed changes would also introduce checks and balances into the process of cabinet appointments and dismissals. In the judicial sphere, the amendments would require special impeachment proceedings to get rid of judges, while granting local government bodies expanded powers. These features drew nods from the Council of Europe, an organization that Armenia joined earlier this year and that strongly endorses broad constitutional amendments.
How will the package go over in Armenia? Political parties at this early stage are reluctant to take a strong position. Official discussions in the National Assembly are to begin next month ahead of a spring referendum, but experts are reluctant to make any predictions on the outcome. Some say that Kocharyan's package, despite refining many issues related to governmental responsibilities, nevertheless leaves many questions unanswered.
The status of Yerevan, the country's capital, is one of the most prominent open questions. Under the present Constitution, the country is divided into eleven provinces (marzs), with governors appointed by the Central government. Unlike smaller communities, Yerevan is given the status of a marz and thus has no self-government. This structure, strange at first glance, reflects the fact that Yerevan harbors one third of the country's population and most of its industry. An elected Mayor of Yerevan might have so much influence as to become a competitor to the national government. At the same time, the national government has trouble budgeting and governing the city. Tokhian's group suggests Yerevan be granted the status of a community, while leaving open the question whether its Mayor should be elected or appointed. Opponents claim that, in this case, the Yerevan community will be able to handle most of the country's consolidated budget, thus increasing inequality between the capital and the provinces.
The process for constitutional change promises to be lengthy. The current Constitution requires a referendum before any amendment can take effect. Referenda can only come before the public after the proposed amendments win the approval of the National Assembly. The amendments presented by the commission concern 46 percent of the present text, plus over 20 new articles proposed. Even if Parliament reaches consensus (which will be far from easy), adopting these amendments via a referendum will remain a huge logistical problem.
The logistical challenges are such that Paruir Hayrikian, leader of a pro-government party and the head of the Presidential Human Rights commission, suggested a preliminary referendum changing only one article of the Constitution, that on the mode of making amendments. Hayrikian says this article needs to be changed to allow Parliament to perform at least part of the amendment without referendum.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.