3 August 2020

Monday, 16:20



Is COVID-19 the only reason for constitutional crisis in Armenia?



The COVID-19 pandemic is still in the headlines of media outlets both nationally and globally. Among other things, it forced many countries to postpone important plebiscites. Poland, for example, postponed the presidential elections scheduled for May 10. It is possible that the Serbian authorities do the same with the parliamentary elections. Because of the seriousness of situation in New York, Democratic Party cancelled the primaries so important for the country before the presidential elections.


Perhaps Armenia, where the coronavirus pandemic forced the authorities to postpone the voting scheduled for April 5, would enjoy a neighbourhood with the above countries, but the situation in the country is far away from what is going on in Warsaw and New York.


National features of Armenian constitutional reforms

According to experts, amending the text of constitution is not a novel thing. Many states have used this practice at different times for different purposes. Life does not stand still, posing new challenges. If a constitution is not just a compilation of beautiful words, but a working document, it has to be changed. But Armenian constitutional reforms have their own national characteristics.

In December 2015, Armenia held a constitutional referendum, which turned Armenia from a presidential republic to a parliamentary one. The institute of presidency was preserved, but the powers of the president were greatly curtailed, with the prime minister assuming all the power. The referendum was held when the then President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan was ending his second term in office. He did not plan to leave the office, as his team came up with a great idea. To make this idea come true, it was necessary to turn Armenia into a parliamentary republic, to reduce presidential powers, and to have the head of state move from the office of the president to the office of the prime minister along with the main real powers to govern the country. It seemed that the plan should work, because the referendum was held, the constitution was changed, and Serzh Sargsyan was indeed appointed as the new prime minister of Armenia. But... the revolution changed the power balance in Armenia.

And now the new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is going to alter the constitution.


Prime Minister vs. Constitutional Court

Interestingly, the issue that the Armenian authorities are going to bring to the voting as amendment to the constitution is sort of a personal matter, as they want to terminate the powers of the Chairman of the Constitutional Court of Armenia, Hrayr Tovmasyan, and six other judges of the court. According to Pashinyan, when some judges have been on their post for 30 years and others for 12 years, this creates an imbalance and undermines the authority of the Constitutional Court. In fact, his motive is completely different. Pashinyan is in a state of serious confrontation with the incumbent chairman of the Constitutional Court, Hrayr Tovmasyan. He and most of the members of the court took office even before the "barbecue revolution" of Nikol Pashinyan. And the Constitutional Court is not going to turn a blind eye on all the ‘revolutionary ideas’ of Pashinyan.

Apparently, the stakes for the "People’s Prime Minister" are quite high. As the head of government, Pashinyan leads the executive branch, forms a loyal cabinet and can even consider the Armenian President, Armen Sargsyan, as a kind of decorative figure or “an English queen who reigns but does not rule.” After the early parliamentary elections, Pashinyan’s faction My Step has a stable majority in the Armenian parliament. But Pashinyan and his cabinet no longer control the judicial branch of the power. That’s why the “revolutionary prime minister” needs to gain control over this branch of the government more than ever.

As soon as Pashinyan came to power, he initiated several high-profile investigations and trials. One of them was the March 1 Case, that is, the shooting of protesters calling to cancel the results of the 2008 presidential elections on March 1, 2008 in Yerevan. Robert Kocharian was the main defendant in this case. We can also note the corruption case in the army against General Manvel Grigoryan. Grigoryan is also responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Azerbaijan. Armenian investigators found in his house boxes with stolen stew, army underwear, toilet paper, an ambulance car and even a funeral wreath. Pashinyan’s team hoped to significantly replenish the Armenian budget with the money confiscated from corrupt officials. But most importantly, Nikol Pashinyan hoped for a long time to imprison his most dangerous opponent from the powerful Karabakh Clan.

However, high-profile investigations are hopelessly stalled in the courts. That’s why Pashinyan is trying to oust Tovmasyan from the Constitutional Court and to replace him with his own candidate, Vahe Grigoryan, to ‘purge’ the Constitutional Court once and forever, and to establish control over the Armenian judiciary system.

The fact that the powers of a prime minister are not enough to alter the composition of the Constitutional Court did not stop Nikol Pashinyan. His supporters attack the press club and the editorial board of the newspaper led by Tovmasyan’s sister. Two criminal cases were instituted against Hrayr Tovmasyan. His house is being searched. The newspaper Haikakan Zhamanak, where Mr. Pashinyan used to work as editor-in-chief, published an accusatory article about the head of the Constitutional Court. Nevertheless, Hrayr Tovmasyan did not resign. Then Pashinyan decided to act more cunningly. During a press conference in January, he said that Hrayr Tovmasyan offered his services, even addressed him with the word “jan” (dear, R+) and presented an elite Korloff pen. In response, Tovmasyan promised to sue Pashinyan for his statement.

We don’t know how long this skirmish, which even made the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe express its concern, would last. Finally, Pashinyan decided to go all-in by declaring April 5 a new date for the referendum on recalling Hrayr Tovmasyan from his post, resignation of six more judges, and legislative amendments that would limit the powers of the Constitutional Court. Most voters, believes the inner circle of the prime minister, simply will not be interested in the details of the powers of the Constitutional Court and the biography of Hrayr Tovmasyan. And the voting will turn into a vote "for Nikola" or "against Nikola." In other words, Pashinyan decided to count on his ‘street popularity’, eliminate the last barrier and take control not only of the executive and legislative branches, but also of the judicial branch in Armenia. After that he can open the path to establishing a personal dictatorship and judicial reprisals against his political opponents.


Problems caused by coronavirus

One can argue whether Pashinyan would win the referendum on the wave of his revolutionary popularity or not, but the coronavirus intervened in the plans of the prime minister. In terms of the number of infected and deceased, Armenia, with a population of less than 3 million, left behind Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Currently, Armenia is in the state of emergency, which is quite a solid reason for postponing the vote. According to the law, a referendum postponed due to an emergency must be held “not earlier than 50 and not more than 65 days after the end of a martial law or state of emergency”.

However, it looks like Pashinyan decided not to wait until the epidemic declines. Armenian Minister of Justice Rustam Badasyan addressed the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, sending questions concerning the resolution of the crisis around the Constitutional Court to the Venice Commission. It is not hard to guess what exactly Badasyan proposed the commission: the Pashinyan team is looking for a way to remove Tovmasyan without a referendum. Just because they understand that the "revolutionary government" does not have real achievements. In response, the Karabakh Clan represented by Mikael Minasyan, the son-in-law of the former Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan launched a war of compromats: Minasyan reveals the intriguing details of Pashinyan’s and his entourage’s complicity in smuggling cigarettes and diamonds. Artur Vanetsyan, the former head of the National Security Council, also continues his attacks on the prime minister. As a result, Nikol Pashinyan’s popularity is rapidly decreasing, with confusion taking place in his team. Pashinyan’s window of opportunity is rapidly closing; he has less moves in the domestic political arena, and there is no chance of turning the ongoing process in his own interest.

It is quite likely that the revolution launched by Pashinyan in Armenia is not the last one.