Constitutional Referendum of 2005
On Sunday, November 27, 2005 a referendum was held to decide whether to amend the constitution. Here is additional info.
TO CHANGE OR NOT TO CHANGE: SUNDAY REFERENDUM PUTS 109 CONSTITUTIONAL ARTICLES IN THE BALANCE
At polls throughout Armenia Sunday voters will be offered a choice on whether to make changes in 109 of the country's 117-article Constitution.
The reforms must receive at least 750,000 `yes' votes (one-third of all registered voters) in order to pass. Armenia's oppositional parties are calling for a boycott of the referendum, hopeful that the new constitution will fail. (See related article.)
Each of the current Constitution's nine chapters of Basic Law faces change.
The least reformed chapter of the Constitution is that concerning the Foundations of Constitutional Order - changes are proposed to only eight of its 13 articles. All 35 articles of Chapter 2 (Fundamental Human and Civil Rights and Freedoms) are subject to reform by the proposed draft. Only one out of 13 articles remains unchanged in Chapter 3 (The President of the Republic of Armenia). Chapter 4 dealing with the National Assembly carries 22 changed articles, while only one remains unaltered. All of the six articles in Chapter 5 dealing with the Government are proposed to be amended. In Chapter 6 dealing with the judicial power it is proposed to change all 13 articles, as well as all seven articles in Chapter 7 dealing with the local government; three of the four articles in Chapter 8 (Adoption of the Constitution, Amendments and Referendum) are proposed for change. And lastly, all three articles of Chapter 9 dealing with final and transitional provisions are due to be amended by the proposed draft.
Generally, authors of the draft amendments contend that the proposed changes essentially create a system of checks and balances between the branches of power and form a situation in which each branch of the government has to reckon with the opinions of the others. Besides, in their view, the amendments establish an independent judiciary.
As proposed, the draft amendments imply certain restrictions of the current sweeping presidential powers in favor of the parliament, the government and the judiciary. Thus, under the draft amendments put to the plebiscite the country's legislature gains a decisive role in forming the government - the President appoints the Prime Minister only with the approval of a parliamentary majority (whereas under the current Constitution, the President appoints the PM according to his sole discretion). Besides, the institution of interpellation is introduced, meaning that members of parliament are entitled to challenge and make decisions regarding government actions (such as during Q & A sessions).
Some of the limitations concern the President's relations with the executive and essentially reduce his powers. By the proposed changes the President's powers to preside over government sittings are handed over to the Prime Minister and the President does not confirm government resolutions.
By the current Constitution, the President also acts as Chairman of the Justice Council. Meanwhile, the amendments stipulate that this position be held by the Chairman of the Court of Cassation and that the judiciary's independence be guaranteed by law. (Under the current Constitution, the guarantor of the judiciary's independence is the President). The creators of the amendments and experts from European agencies engaged in the process say that the influence of the President on the judicial power will be minimized this way.
One of the essential reforms proposed in local government is that Yerevan will receive a community's status, meaning that its mayor will be elected either directly (popular vote) or indirectly (through elected officials in the city government). Presently, the Mayor of Yerevan is appointed (and dismissed) by the President.
Among the key changes regarding citizens' rights is the removal of the ban on dual citizenship, and allowing citizens of Armenia to apply to the Constitutional Court after they have exhausted all judicial opportunities (all three court instances). Now, citizens are not allowed to appeal to the Constitutional Court. That right is reserved only for the President, the Government, a collective will of at least 1/3 of Parliament, and MP and Presidential election candidates during campaigns.
Although the President's powers get restricted, there are several provisions in the draft amendments to the Constitution that arouse a great controversy among the country's political opposition.
Namely, under Article 56, `the President may not be prosecuted or held liable for actions arising from his/her status during and after his/her term of office. The President may be impeached for state treason or other heavy crimes.'
Article 80 of the amended Constitution vests the president with powers to change Armenia's borders with the approval of Parliament.
And, finally, the provision that the President cannot be reelected after two consecutive terms, under Article 53.1, `during martial law or state of emergency no elections of the President of the Republic shall be held and the President of the Republic shall continue the discharge of his/her responsibilities. In this case the election of the President of Republic shall be held on the 40th day following the expiration of the term of the martial law or state of emergency.'
Some experts consider that this circumstance may become a serious matter at issue in the visible future. In particular, Director of the Institute of Fundamental Sciences Simon Kamsarakan claims that according to international law Armenia continues to be in a situation of martial law until it signs a reconciliation agreement with Azerbaijan. To further substantiate his position he invokes point 5 of Armenia's Law on Referendums adopted in 2001 that excludes the holding of referendums in such conditions.
`Our organization has addressed a letter to President Robert Kocharyan informing him that the referendum planned for November 27 is illegal and that any event on amending the Constitution can be held only after a reconciliation agreement is signed,' says Kamsarakan.
Military analyst David Harutyunov strongly opposes the restrictions regarding the presidential powers arguing that they will make the country more vulnerable to external threats in conditions of its factually being at war.
`Let's not forget that Armenia's President is also the Commander-in-Chief of the country's Armed Forces and therefore the restriction of his powers is fraught with real dangers, especially that today many international observers and organizations do not exclude the possibility of renewed active military operations,' Harutyunov says.
And political analyst Armen Poghosyan sees a threat in the country's moving towards parliamentarianism.
`The amended constitution is a step on the way towards building a parliamentary republic. Meanwhile, the idea about the establishment of a common South Caucasus parliament is being more and more loudly voiced today,' he says. `I think it is a dangerous tendency. It does not proceed from Armenia's national interests as we had similar precedents in the past - first, in the period of 1917-1918 when the South Caucasus was a common parliamentary state, and later in 1922-36 when there was the so-called Trans-Caucasian Soviet Federation. In both cases Armenia sustained great losses, including the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1923.'
Armen Ayvazyan, doctor of political sciences and lecturer at the American University of Armenia, says that Armenia needs constitutional reforms, but says that no real change in the situation will be achieved unless these reforms are accompanied with progress in the sphere of state governance.
`There are provisions in the amended Constitution that will in one way or another play a positive role in the development of the state. For example, one of such provisions regards the withdrawal of the absurd article banning dual citizenship. The election of Yerevan's mayor is also a positive step,' Ayvazyan says.
Among those who consider the amended Basic Law to be `a step forward' is also expert in conflict Viktor Solakhyan.
But: `Of course, it is a step forward compared to the previous one. But why should we take only one step forward at a time instead of, say, ten?' he queries.
As a member of the last city council Solakhyan was against stripping Yerevan of the status of a community in 1995 and making the mayor's post appointed by the President.
`The article regarding the status of Yerevan should have expressly stated that the election of the mayor must be through a direct popular vote,' he argues.
Yerevan is home to nearly half of Armenia's population and about 60-70 percent of the republic's production potential is concentrated in the capital city. The expert believes that it is this very circumstance that makes the authorities fearful that election of Yerevan's mayor in such conditions should be perceived as equal to electing the republic's President.
Among the most contestable articles is also Article 35 dealing with the family.
Head of the Governmental Department for National Minorities Affairs and Religion Hranush Kharatyan thinks that some wordings in the amendments need specifying.
`In my opinion, the amended Constitution most clearly regulates relations between the branches of power and sets clear terminology in the sphere of human rights,' she says. `However, there are problems in the article dealing with the family. As for issues of religion and national minorities, terminologically these articles are better worded and specified in accordance with the spirit of the time.'
Khachik Stamboltsyan, a member of the Board of the `Christians Against People's Numeration' public organization, claims that Article 35 reads ambiguously.
`There are several points in the proposed changes that reduce the whole Constitution to naught. Thus, Article 35, in my opinion, contains immoral implication, as, in fact, it does not legally exclude same-sex marriages,' he claims.
In particular, the part of the article that, according to him, leaves room for interpretation is as follows: `...Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and found a family according to their free will. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and divorce.'
Ardent anti-gay activists claim that the article should have stated more clearly that marriage is between men and women only.
Meanwhile, the advocates of the change reject these claims as groundless and for greater sureness some even cite the sentence that expounds this provision, explaining what a family is: `The family is the natural and fundamental cell of the society.' - With the word `natural' being underscored.
`YES' `NO' `NEITHER': OPPOSITION URGES THIRD OPTION - DON'T VOTE IN REFERENDUM
By Vahan Ishkhanyan
From top coverage on television and newspapers, to street-side billboards, and even in SMS-text messages, Armenia is saturated these days with information about Sunday's referendum on amending the Constitution. Hardly has there ever been such public debate on a non-election issue.
Internationals have contributed to referendum hype; earlier this week the British Council sponsored a `Rock the Referendum' concert.
Typically, political forces are divided into two camps. On the one hand there are YES campaigners - the parties of the ruling coalition and other political forces supporting the constitutional reform that would impact 107 of 119 Articles (see related story).
The `Vote Yes' campaign has seized the bulk of broadcast time and its colorful advertisement billboards urge citizens to vote `Yes'. On one of such billboards two children stretch their hands upwards reaching for `Yes' like for the sun. The billboard is signed - `Our Future'. Excerpts from constitutional amendments are pasted in other places. The signs of YES campaign headquarters are seen at different entrances. Beautiful female students dressed in special jackets approach passers-by and encourage them to vote `Yes'. A `Vote Yes' website was opened - http://www.ayo.am; a free phone for `Yes' operates countrywide.
The opposition contrasts these colorful banners with 16x24 format photocopied black-and-white `Vote No' leaflets. Eighteen parties have united against the proposed changes of the Constitution. At first the opposition camp was divided, one part was urging the public to go to the polls and vote `No', while one part urged a boycott of the vote. At the end of last week all opposition forces decided to boycott the elections and follow the course of the referendum through 6,000 observers. (Opposition parties later announced withdrawal of its poll observers.)
Last week a 100-150-vehicle motorcade of the opposition toured Armenia's regions, staging public rallies and urging people to boycott the polls. Leaders of the opposition simply make calls for a revolution and say that in reality by boycotting the referendum they say `No' to the authorities. (They reason, in part, that if voters do not go to the polls, the referendum will fail. At least 750,000 `yes' votes are required for the changes to be accepted.)
In Artashat, `Hanrapetutyun' party leader MP Aram Sargsyan stated: `They (authorities) live by other laws, today they say that the situation in the country is bad, but a paper is to blame, the old constitution is to blame for it, if you change it, the situation will change. It won't, the same prefect, the same policeman, the same mayor, nothing will change. Things will change in this country only through a revolution.'
Why is the opposition against the constitutional reforms when many neutral specialists and Western experts and diplomats say that changes are necessary as they register progress as compared to the current constitution?
National-Democratic Union party leader MP Vazgen Manukyan says that all current constitutions in the world in their variety have one thing in common, i.e. that power belongs to people, and it is administered through elections. However, this paramount point, the former Prime Minister argues, does not work in Armenia. Manukyan says that over years a group has been formed here that through permanently rigging elections (local, parliamentary, presidential) has made power their own and now with new changes are distributing this power, making it more stable.
`Through fraudulent elections they will continue to use the mechanism of keeping power in the future, because they have no reason not to use this mechanism,' says Manukyan. `Now with new changes there will be a redistribution of powers among the President, the National Assembly and the Government.
`That is, the ruling feudal-oligarchic system is deciding among themselves which power will be divided in which way and with this division this system becomes more stable. Previously, power depended on one person and with removing that person everything could be collapsed and another system could be created. Now even those points that we would wish to see in any constitution, for example the increased role of the legislature, in this case will cause more damage, as they strengthen that system. If the changes are passed, in the 2007 parliamentary elections the group of people that hold Armenia in their grip will have the parliament fully consisting of their people. I have been a member of four parliaments and each new one had more of such people, whilst political figures had been ousted. It is a paradox but a fact - by introducing good points into the Constitution we will get a worse National Assembly.'
Manukyan was the first of opposition leader to have stated that the referendum should be boycotted. `The law on the referendum differs from the law on any election,' he says. `Whereas in other polls a candidate wins when he gets more votes than his rival, in a referendum 750,000 citizens must vote 'Yes', which is practically impossible. Now if they go to vote and, for instance, a million people will vote, then results can be rigged easily. We have seen how they can turn every 'No' into 'Yes' in their `magical rooms'. It is impossible to control it. But it will be easy to control how many people participate in the polls.'
Not known for extremist positions and considered as something of a centrist among more radical opposition figures, Raffi Hovannisian - using language more aggressive than he is commonly known for - threw his support behind the boycott this week. In a statement representing his Heritage party, Hovannisian, Armenia's first Minister of Foreign Affairs, characterized the current administration as `a regime' that `supports thieves, murderers and corrupt individuals . . .' (See Lashing Language by Hovannisian)
Some common citizens feel they are faced with a `no-win' situation.
Painter Mher Azatyan says: `I boycott because I cannot vote `No', as the changes are better than the Constitution currently in force. I cannot vote `Yes', as with this vote I would say `Yes' to the authorities'.
The Chief of those `authorities', President Robert Kocharyan says a boycott may impede the referendum, but will not stop government reform.
At a press conference this week in Slovenia Kocharyan - who, if the `yes' camp wins will be the last President to have sweeping powers provided by the Constitution - said that during his remaining term: `We will continue with reforms whether the referendum succeeds or not. Life will go on. I hope that we will get a positive result in the referendum ... as that would increase our chances for integration into Europe.'
With opposition rallies scheduled over the weekend, the United States Embassy in Yerevan sent out a `warden's message' Wednesday, urging its ex-pat community to stay away from the protests.
`Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence,' the message read.
LASHING LANGUAGE BY HOVANNISIAN: FORMER FM JOINS BOYCOTT AGAINST `RULING CLIQUE'
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian has added his voice to opposition calls for a popular boycott of the upcoming referendum and urged `civil disobedience' in the face of what he described as a government plan to rig the vote.
In an unusually strongly-worded statement read out to reporters, Hovannisian referred to Armenia's leadership as a `regime that supports thieves, murderers and corrupt individuals and enjoys their support.' He charged that with their draft constitutional amendments President Robert Kocharian and his allies want to cling to power, guarantee their immunity from prosecution and legitimize their `misappropriation of national wealth.'
`It is really pathetic that the ruling clique, which has turned illegalities into a way of life and is enriching itself with unlimited plunder, is pretending to be a custodian of the constitution and laws,' said the popular opposition politician. `By refusing to participate in the forthcoming political show we choose not to give them public amnesty through this false vote,' he added.
The remarks represent the strongest verbal attack on the Armenian authorities ever launched by Hovannisian. The normally reserved U.S.-born lawyer, who was granted Armenian citizenship only in 2001, dismissed their amendments as `cosmetic.' Even the proposed abolition of the constitutional ban on dual citizenship was denounced by him as an attempt to `extend illegalities to the Armenian Diaspora.'
Hovannisian's Zharangutyun (Heritage) party is a member of a coalition of about two dozen opposition groups jointly campaigning against Kocharian's constitutional reform. Senior members of Zharangutyun have toured the country with other opposition leaders in recent weeks. But Hovannisian has so far avoided personal involvement in the campaign.
He announced on Monday that Zharangutyun will initiate an anti-government rally in Yerevan on Friday and urged Armenians to attend it. He said the `civic assembly' will be followed up by a larger opposition gathering on voting day. Hovannisian declined to answer any questions from journalists and it was not clear what exactly he plans to do this weekend.
Other opposition leaders appeared unaware of his intentions. Victor Dallakyan of the Artarutyun alliance welcomed the former foreign minister's call for civil disobedience but said he has not discussed joint actions with the bloc. `The Artarutyun alliance has not received any proposals from Mr. Hovannisian to discuss the matter,' Dallakyan told RFE/RL. `If we receive a relevant proposal, we will be ready to consider it.'
Another opposition leader, Artashes Geghamyan, sounded cool towards Hovannisian's idea. `Our tactic does not involve the holding of such gatherings,' he said.
European Observers Question Armenian Vote Result
Observers from the Council of Europe on Monday cast serious doubt on the credibility of the official results of Armenia's weekend referendum which show overwhelming popular support for President Robert Kocharian's constitutional amendments.
The 14-member monitoring team from the council's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities (CLRAE) singled out a paradoxically high turnout that was reported by the Armenian authorities despite empty polling stations across the country.
According to preliminary figures released by the Central Election Commission, as many as 1.5 million Armenians, or nearly two thirds of the 2.3 million eligible voters, took part in Sunday's referendum and 93.8 percent of them voted for the amendments. To pass, the amendments had to be endorsed by at least 767,000 voters. The figures sharply contrast with strong anecdotal evidence of a lack of public interest in the process.
`The 14 members of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities noted that the referendum generally reflected the free will of those who voted,' the head of the delegation, Tomas Jirsa, said, presenting their preliminary findings. `However, on voting day the observers witnessed serious abuse in several polling stations which cast a shadow over the credibility of the officially announced turnout.'
In the words of Sean O'Brien, another member of the delegation, the observers witnessed serious fraud `in a significant number of polling stations in Yerevan and other regions.' `The extremely low voting activity did not correspond to the high figures provided by the electoral commissions,' he said. `There were also clear instances of forged additional signatures on the voters registers and of ballot stuffing.'
`The delegation considers that the abuses that marred the referendum were against the intent and the interest of the Armenian people,' O'Brien added, calling on the Armenian authorities to bring `those responsible for fraud' to account.
The official turnout was openly rejected as fraudulent by the head of Armenia's largest election-monitoring organization called It's Your Choice. `The figure is really unbelievable,' Harutiun Hambartsumian told RFE/RL. He said the group, which deployed over 2,000 observers, will release a detailed report on the referendum Tuesday.
Nevertheless, the CEC chairman, Garegin Azarian, stood by the official vote tally, saying that turnout was indeed high. He was reluctant to comment on the observers' findings. `Yes, they registered violations and said they believe the CEC will draw conclusions regarding their proposals,' he told reporters. `I am now in a hurry to meet them and discuss the questions raised by them.'
Azarian also wrongly claimed that fewer Armenians participated in the referendum than in the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2003. The official turnout at the time was 62 percent and 51 percent respectively.
With the Armenian opposition boycotting the referendum and urging supporters to do the same, high turnout was critical for the success of the constitutional reform endorsed by the Council of Europe and Western powers. The CEC put the turnout in Yerevan, home to at least one third of the country's population, at almost 56 percent. However, less than a quarter of eligible voters in polling stations across the city visited by RFE/RL correspondents cast their ballots by the evening.
Christopher Newbury, a British observer, said the turnout was inflated in a `significant number of polling stations.' The monitoring mission as a whole avoided any comment on whether the amendments would have passed without the reported fraud.
`It's not for us to evaluate whether or not the referendum was valid,' said Jirsa. "It's up to the Central Election Commission of Armenia.' He indicated that the Council of Europe mission was too small to pass such judgment.
The presidential and parliamentary elections held in Armenia since the Soviet collapse were typically monitored by at least 200 Western observers, most of them representing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE failed to deploy a similar mission this time around, citing a lack of formal invitation from the Armenian government.
Yerevan does not seem to have faced pressure to invite the OSCE from the U.S. and other Western governments. Furthermore, the influential Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian is said to have told the OSCE on behalf of his government not to monitor the November 27 vote.
In their preliminary statement made public at a news conference, the Council of Europe team deplored in this regard `the decision taken by the authorities which precluded the attendance by any other international observers.' It also slammed the Armenian opposition for recalling its representatives from the election commissions and failing to properly monitor Sunday's polling.
Lord John Tomlinson, a British member of the PACE, told reporters: `We have participated to try to help you. We wish they [the opposition] had participated to try to help themselves and the people that they purport to represent.'
Azarian also ciritized the the opposition boycott. `By means of self-isolation, they deprived themselves of the possibility of overseeing the process and appealing the referendum results,' he said.
`Yes' Camp Says Referendum Victory Clean
Leaders of Armenia's governing coalition insisted on Monday that their victory in the constitutional referendum was not the result of massive vote rigging, downplaying irregularities reported by local and foreign observers.
`There may have been problems in one or two places, but the referendum has been a success,' said Mher Shahgeldian, a senior lawmaker who has nominally managed the `Yes' campaign of the three political parties represented in President Robert Kocharian's government.
`I think it was impossible to hold a flawless election in Armenia,' said deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian. `The published figures show that even considering all reports of violations, the referendum results can not be called into question in any way.'
Speaking to reporters, both men dismissed suggestions that the voter turnout reported by the Central Election Commission is grossly inflated because it sharply contrasted with a striking lack of voters in polling station across Armenia.
`I disagree with the view that voters were passive,' said Shahgeldian. `In many places they had to form lines to cast their ballots.'
But Shahgeldian, who heads the Armenian parliament's committee on defense and security, pointedly stopped short of describing the vote as free and fair. He pledged that the `Yes' camp will thoroughly look into the findings of Council of Europe observers, while stressing that the latter did not witness serious irregularities in the majority of some 150 precincts visited by them.
`I can state at this point that the turnout and the percentage of `yes' votes was high,' he said.
Opposition Condemns `Unprecedented' Fraud, Vows More Protests
Leaders of Armenia's main opposition forces refused on Monday to recognize the official outcome of the constitutional referendum which they said raised the country's post-Soviet culture of electoral fraud to new heights.
All but one of those parties jointly rallied several thousand supporters in Yerevan and pledged to step up street protests in the comings days in a bid to bring down the Armenian government. But their leaders admitted that they need to pull larger crowds to be able to threaten the ruling regime.
`What happened is a crime against the Armenian people which can not fall under the statute of limitations,' the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) said in a statement read out to the protesters by one of its senior members, Victor Dallakian.
Dismissing the official vote results, Dallakian thanked the electorate for `boycotting [President Robert] Kocharian and his regime.' `The unelected president is trying to impose an unelected constitution on the people,' he charged.
`The people boycotted the referendum,' said another Artarutyun leader, Aram Sarkisian. `The polling stations were so empty yesterday that you could hear the buzz of flies.'
`It is obvious that on November 27 the authorities staged an unconstitutional coup d'etat in the Republic of Armenia,' the other opposition group represented in parliament, the National Unity Party (AMK), said in a separate statement.
`The referendum brought us even closer to the collapse of this illegitimate regime,' it concluded.
The AMK's outspoken leader, Artashes Geghamian, has campaigned against Kocharian's constitutional amendments on his own and so far refused to join the opposition rallies. By contrast, Artarutyun, has teamed up with a dozen other parties. The leader of one of those parties, Raffi Hovannisian, referred to the disputed referendum as a `new shameful page in our modern history' in an emotional speech at the rally.
`The people standing here and those who will come here tomorrow and after that will not let you turn Armenia into a land of fraud because Armenia is a homeland of truth, hope, light, law and justice,' he said, appealing to the country's leadership.
The rally was opened by Artarutyun's top leader Stepan Demirchian who denounced the referendum as a `farce.' `We don't care about their numbers because everyone saw what happened in reality,' he said.
`We thought the 2003 presidential elections could not have been more fraudulent, but the referendum set a new sad record,' claimed another opposition speaker, Artak Zeynalian.
It was the largest opposition gathering since the start of the referendum campaign a month ago. Still, the size of the crowd clearly fell short of opposition expectations. Opposition leaders and Sarkisian in particular hope that popular anger at the perceived vote rigging will spark the kind of pro-democracy movement that swept away the ruling regimes in other ex-Soviet republics.
Sarkisian indicated that the opposition coalition has a `clear plan of action' and will stage a bigger protest on Tuesday. He admitted that it has yet to gather a `critical mass' of protesters ready to resist security forces.
Sarkisian revealed that the opposition will try to mobilize greater support in Yerevan and bus supporters from other parts of the country into the capital. `All those citizens of the Republic of Armenia who do not accept this impudent fraud must start gathering here tomorrow at 3 p.m.,' he said. `Those who have cars must protest by honking their horns. Their sound must resonate all over Yerevan.'
The call prompted a stern warning from the police. `Some representatives of the police called on participants of their rally to resort to actions that involve violation of public order,' a police spokesman told RFE/RL. `The police are determined to counter any attempts to disrupt public order and make sure that those have legal consequences.'
Later in the day, employees of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, a think-tank controlled by Hovannisian, told reporters that they were visited by two police officers and warned not to take part in the opposition rally planned for Tuesday.
(Photolur photo: Hovannisian speaking at the rally.)
State Radio Denies Political Motives For RFE/RL Broadcast Disruption
Armenia's state-run Public Radio ruled out on Monday any political reasons for the effective disruption of the RFE/RL Armenian service's main news program that was broadcast on Sunday evening.
Most of the program, retransmitted by the radio on its two FM frequencies, was inaudible throughout the broadcast that began at 7 p.m. local time. It mainly featured news reports from Yerevan on voting in Armenia's constitutional referendum. Their authors noted, in particular, a sharp contrast between the official voter turnout and largely empty polling stations in Yerevan and nearby regions.
RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau received phone calls from scores of angry listeners who saw political motives behind the mysterious disruption. But in a statement posted on its website, the Public Radio denied this, saying that it recently installed a new FM transmitter and `it could be the reason for the technical problem.'
The Public Radio is part of a government-controlled broadcasting corporation that runs Armenia's largest and most accessible television channel. The latter as well as virtually private TV networks rarely air reports that contain criticism of Armenia's leadership. In particular, they have refused to air opposition ads urging voters to reject the proposed constitutional changes.
The Armenian electronic media's coverage of Sunday's vote and the preceding campaign was criticized by a monitoring mission from the Council of Europe. `The observers' impression is that during the campaign leading to the referendum there was not equal access to the media,' the mission said in a statement on Monday. `This was to the disadvantage of the opposition to the constitutional changes and hampered genuine democratic debate.'
Armenian Observers Slam `Undemocratic' Referendum
Armenia's largest election-monitoring organization condemned on Tuesday the government's handling of the weekend constitutional referendum, citing widespread fraud reported by its observers.
`Serious violations of the electoral process, illegal voting and especially ballot box stuffing registered on November 27 ¦ do not allow us to recognize the referendum on amendments to Armenia's constitution as democratic and meeting international standards,' the independent group called It's Your Choice concluded in a report.
The 12-page report details numerous irregularities that were reported by some 4,000 observers deployed by It's Your Choice on voting day. Its chairman, Harutiun Hambartsumian, said they visited nearly 60 percent of the polling stations across Armenia.
`Despite the seemingly calm and peaceful atmosphere that reigned at the polling stations, most of our observers worked in quite tense and complicated conditions,' the report said, adding that at least ten of them were illegally prevented by election officials from following the voting.
According to Hambartsumian, one of his observers was pelted with a stone outside a Yerevan polling station and needed hospitalization after refusing to show the head of the local election commission his written notes.
The group claimed that ballot box stuffing was a key reason for an unusually high voter turnout reported by the Armenian authorities. `There was more ballot stuffing on November 27 than during the presidential elections of 2003,' Hambartsumian charged at a news conference. He said in one polling station in Yerevan the number of ballots cast was ten times higher than the number of voters counted by It's Your Choice observers.
`Of course the violations affected the referendum outcome,' added Hambartsumian. `To what extent? Let the Central Election Commission determine that.'
The CEC upheld on Tuesday the preliminary official results of the vote that claim an overwhelming popular endorsement of the Western-backed constitutional reform. According to its final vote tally, as many as 1.5 million Armenians, or 65.7% percent of eligible voters, took part in the referendum and over 93 percent of them voted for the amendments drafted by President Robert Kocharian and his governing coalition.
`I congratulate all of us in connection with the adopted decision,' Garegin Azarian, the CEC chairman, told fellow members of the Kocharian-controlled body after signing its final vote protocol.
`We will analyze shortcomings registered during the vote and draw conclusions,' Azarian told reporters. `If we identify concrete facts [of electoral fraud], they will definitely be presented to the Prosecutor's Office, as we did after the local elections.'
Two of the CEC's nine members representing the opposition refused to endorse the results, dismissing them as fraudulent. `I have been to polling stations and kept track of voter activity,' one of them, Felix Khachatrian, told RFE/RL. `That as well as my conversations with people make me believe that more than one million votes were stolen in the process.'
`There have been no elections like this in Armenia before,' added Khachatrian. `They did whatever they wanted.'
Kocharian Thanks Armenians For `Great' Referendum Win
President Robert Kocharian thanked the electorate on Tuesday for what he saw as its `unequivocal and resolute' endorsement of his constitutional amendments which he said will usher in an era of prosperity for Armenia.
His three-party governing coalition, which co-authored the amendments, likewise claimed convincing victory in Sunday's disputed referendum criticized by domestic and international monitors.
`This is a great victory in efforts to strengthen democracy and form civil society in Armenia,' Kocharian said in a written address to the nation. `I thank those citizens who did not prove indifferent to the country's future and actively participated in the referendum.
`I believe that there could be no winners and losers in this referendum. The constitution belongs to all of us and it is now time to work together to develop and adopt legal acts for implementing the constitutional provisions ¦ The reformed constitution paves the way for turning Armenia into a thriving country of the 21st century.'
Kocharian's stated optimism was echoed by the three political parties represented in his government. `The referendum was a success because it is evident that the results of the November 27 vote on the whole reflect the popular mood,' they said in a joint statement.
The statement mentioned serious fraud reported by a team of referendum observers from the Council of Europe. But it claimed they concluded that those irregularities `could not have affected the outcome.'
However, a preliminary report issued by the European observers on Monday did not contain such assertion. `It's not for us to evaluate whether or not the referendum was valid,' the head of their delegation, Tomas Jirsa, told a news conference.
The Council of Europe report called into question the authorities' claims that nearly two thirds of Armenia's 2.3 million eligible voters participated in the referendum. The reported turnout, one of the highest in Armenia's post-Soviet history, was at odds with unusually deserted polling stations across the country. The Armenian opposition says it proves massive vote rigging allegedly perpetrated by the Kocharian administration.
The pro-Kocharian parties accused the opposition of trying to `come to power at any cost' and urged Armenians not to attend opposition rallies staged in Yerevan. `We urge you not to succumb to meaningless attempts to undermine the country's stability and international standing,' they said.
(Photolur photo: Kocharian talking to reporters on Sunday.)
Opposition Issues Referendum Ultimatum
The Armenian opposition again rallied thousands of supporters in Yerevan on Tuesday, giving the authorities until Friday to nullify the weekend referendum or face more street protests against its allegedly fraudulent results.
Opposition leaders declined to specify what exactly they will do after the authorities almost certainly reject the ultimatum. Some of them renewed their pledge to force regime change by means of a `democratic revolution.' But they have so far failed to gather what they call a `critical mass' of supporters needed for the success of the effort.
`The Central Election Commission has 72 hours [to make a decision], so do we,' Aram Sarkisian, the most radical opposition leader, told the crowd. `Do we want Robert Kocharian to quit? The first step must be the annulment of the referendum.'
Sarkisian and other opposition leaders reiterated their claims that less than 16 percent of Armenia's 2.3 million eligible voters participated in Sunday's referendum. `The people expressed their will by boycotting the vote and saying no to the regime,' said Stepan Demirchian, Kocharian's main challenger in the last presidential election
`This regime is doomed and we will bring this process to an end,' added Demirchian. But he cautioned that forcing Kocharian into resignation is a `process' that will take some time.
Vazgen Manukian, another prominent oppositionist, similarly spoke of a ` long road' to regime change. `If somebody expects a checkmate with one move, they are wrong,' he said.
The opposition already tried to replicate the 2003 anti-government revolution in neighboring Georgia last year but its campaign of street protests fizzled out due to a lack of popular support and a heavy-handed government response. It hoped to use the referendum for another push for power, but has so far failed to pull large crowds.
Tuesday's rally went ahead despite being banned by the Yerevan municipality which claimed that opposition leaders' speeches create a situation threatening `citizens' life and health.'
`We consider that decision unconstitutional because it restricts citizens' right to hold demonstrations,' Suren Sureniants of the opposition Hanrapetutyun party told RFE/RL before the gathering. `We are prone to conclude that they are thereby trying to provoke the opposition.'
Opposition parties also said their activists across the country, who took part in the referendum as observers and alleged serious fraud, are being rounded up and questioned by the police. According to a spokeswoman for Demirchian's Artarutyun alliance, they are warned not to attend the Yerevan rallies.
At least five oppositionists were reportedly summoned to the police station in Ashtarak, a small town 20 kilometers west of the capital, for `prophylactic conversations' with senior law-enforcement officers. A similar incident was reported in the central town of Abovian. A local opposition activist, Vahan Sargsian, said he was taken to a police station early in the morning and kept there for several hours.
`I was a member of the election commission in the Arzni village,' he told RFE/RL. `They did everything to hamper my work and make sure that I do not report illegalities committed during the referendum.'
Sargsian, who is a former senior military police officer, said he was set free after an ambiguous three-minute conversation with the chief of the Abovian police. `I never understood what was the point of keeping me there for so long,' he said.
U.S. Echoes Questions About Armenian Poll Result
The United States joined European observers on Tuesday in raising serious questions about the credibility of the official results of Armenia's weekend constitutional referendum which gave victory to President Robert Kocharian and his allies by a strikingly large margin.
`We share the regret of the Council of Europe, whose observers called into serious question the voter turnout figures for the referendum reported by the Armenian government,' the U.S. State Department's Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs said in a statement.
According to the Central Election Commission, nearly two thirds of Armenia's 2.3 million eligible voters participated in the referendum and more than 93 percent of them voted for Kocharian's constitutional amendments. The reported turnout, one of the highest in Armenia's post-Soviet history, was at odds with unusually deserted polling stations witnessed by observers and journalists across the country on Sunday.
The 14-strong monitoring mission Council of Europe's cast serious doubt on the official figures on Monday, saying that in a large number of polling stations `the extremely low voting activity did not correspond to the high figures provided by the electoral commissions.'
`We call on the Government of Armenia to investigate Council of Europe observer reports of serious abuses and fraud,' read the statement posted on the website of the U.S. embassy in Yerevan. `It is clear that there is room for improvement in the voting process between now and the 2007-2008 parliamentary and presidential elections.'
The statement reaffirmed U.S. support for the proposed constitutional changes, describing them as `potentially strengthening democratic institutions in Armenia.' The Council of Europe and the European Union take a similar view. Armenian opposition leaders, however, say laws will be irrelevant to the country's democratization as long as Kocharian and his regime remain in power.
Still, Washington clearly wants to see the Armenian president and his loyal parliament complete their terms in office in 2008 and 2007 respectively. `We are working closely with the Government of Armenia, political parties, and with civil society to implement a package of democracy-building measures aimed at helping Armenia achieve free and fair elections in 2007-2008,' said its statement.
Armenian Prosecutors Pledge To Probe Reported Voting Rigging
Thursday, 1 December, 2005
By Karine Kalantarian
In an apparent response to international criticism, the Armenian authorities have promised to investigate media reports of serious fraud that marred the weekend constitutional referendum.
Armenia's Office of Prosecutor-General revealed on Thursday that it has set up an ad hoc commission tasked with looking into the instances of ballot box stuffing, forgery of voter signatures and other irregularities reported by the local press.
Sources in the law-enforcement agency told RFE/RL that the commission will study about 40 pages of newspaper articles alleging serious fraud. They said it will decide by the beginning of next week whether to bring criminal charges against officials involved in the conduct of the disputed poll.
The decision comes amid opposition allegations that the administration of President Robert Kocharian has rigged the referendum to push through its amendments to the Armenian constitution. According to official results, a record-high 65 percent of Armenia's 2.3 million eligible voters took part in the vote and 93 percent of them voted for the amendments.
However, the reported high turnout was at odds with largely empty polling stations. The Armenian opposition claims that it was below 16 percent.
`The extremely low voting activity did not correspond to the high figures provided by the electoral commissions,' a monitoring mission from the Council of Europe said in a statement on Monday. `There were also clear instances of forged additional signatures on the voters register and of ballot stuffing.'
The findings of the Council of Europe were explicitly endorsed by parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian in a newspaper interview published on Thursday. `It is obvious that there was ballot stuffing,' he told the `Aravot' daily.
Still, Kocharian and his governing coalition, including Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir Party, have said that the reported violations did not affect the legitimacy and outcome of the referendum.
The law-enforcement authorities announced a similar inquiry in the wake of the last presidential election that was criticized by the West in even stronger terms. But no Armenian government official is known to have faced criminal prosecution for electoral fraud.
The prosecutors' latest pledge was dismissed as a cop-out by the opposition. Artak Zeynalian, who coordinated opposition monitoring of the referendum, said he expects `no concrete action' from them.
Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, who has campaigned for the passage of the constitutional changes through his Nig-Aparan organization, sparked a controversy last week with a stern warning issued to members of the election commissions representing the opposition. He threatened to prosecute those of them who will comply with opposition leaders' instructions to boycott the work of those bodies. The opposition says he can not do that under Armenian law.
(Photolur photo: Aghvan Hovsepian.)