Constitutional Changes in Armenia Cause a Stir5 min read
The ripples of the Velvet Revolution are still flowing and the Constitutional Court in Armenia may be the next to get caught up in the change. On 5 April, the citizens of Armenia will take to the polls in an extraordinary referendum. On the ballot: constitutional changes which would dissolve the nation’s highest judicial body.
The upcoming vote is the latest intensification of the struggle between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the Constitutional Court. Since coming to office, Pashinyan has promised to eradicate corruption, and the court in particular has been a notable target. Pashinyan offered a stern message to the members of the Constitutional Court in a speech to the National Assembly. As he announced that the people of Armenia would be left to decide the court’s fate he stated, “You, the ones elected under the old procedure, can resign as a member of the Constitutional Court. You can do it today, tomorrow, or you can do it before the President signs the decision on the referendum.”
For Pashinyan, the current court is a vestige of the regime of Serzh Sargsyan. Seven out of the nine judges sitting on the court were appointed before Sargsyan was booted from power in 2018 by a series of peaceful protests now dubbed the Velvet Revolution. On the back of these protests, Pashinyan was swept into power along with his coalition of My Step representatives receiving a broad mandate from the public. During his tenure thus far, two judges have been appointed to the Constitutional Court and would keep their powers after the referendum. Pashinyan deems the dismissal of the rest of the seven judges from the court to be the next step in creating an independent judiciary and bringing democracy to Armenia. A referendum in which the people of the republic decide their fate of the Constitutional Court is then not only direct democracy but, if in favor of the changes, a reaffirmation of support for the prime minister’s mission.
This battle between Pashinyan and the Constitutional Court has been brewing hot since the summer of 2019. Principally, Hrayr Tovmasyan has been at the center of this dispute. Tovmasyan was appointed to the court in 2018 and is currently serving as its chairman. Pashinyan has taken aim at Tovmasyan several times before, accusing him of occupying the court and gaining his position through fraud. Armenian law enforcement agencies have brought two charges of abuse of power against Tovmasyan, both of which his lawyers denounce as “political persecution”. Tovmasyan’s Yerevan apartment was searched by the Special Investigation Service in late January.
Tovmasyan’s worries do not end there. In a particularly scandalous incident, a young member of Pashinyan’s My Step party, Henrik Artenyan, openly called for the harassment of Tovmasyan’s daughter on social media. Artenyan was forced to abandon his mandate soon after, as the conduct had been deemed inappropriate by fellow party members.
The decision to call a referendum was preceded by several other attempts by the Pashinyan administration to ‘clean up’ the Constitutional Court. Previously the Justice Ministry had proposed an early retirement scheme for the judges which the Ministry argues is similar to judicial reform paths taken by European nations like Poland. However, Poland has taken much criticism from the European Union, which ruled its attempts to force early retirement on judges as contrary to European Union law. Judges from as many as 14 countries protested in Warsaw in the beginning of 2020 to denounce what they view as attempts to end the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches of government.
In the decision to call a referendum on the constitutional changes, the Armenian government did not consult the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory wing on constitutional law. In a statement, the commission stresses that the proposed referendum could have “long-term repercussions on the functioning of constitutional institutions.” The Council’s Parliamentary Assembly is also preparing to visit Armenia in order to better understand the situation at hand and reportedly are preparing statements which will give a clearer picture of the position of the Assembly.
Within Armenia, there have been a myriad of critical statements in response to the decision to call a referendum. Opposition parties such as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) have voiced their disapproval of such a vote. Dashnaktsutyun have accused the ruling My Step party of populist behavior and called upon citizens to boycott the referendum, which they deem dangerous adventurism. Civil society actors have also voiced their concern. The NGO Path of Law has called the referendum unconstitutional. In a statement, they detail that along with a hundred other members of the Armenian legal community are organizing a civic campaign against the proposed reform.
While there may be critics of the referendum, Pashinyan knows that time is not his friend. The Velvet Revolution and his quick rise to power created many high expectations. Everyday Armenians remain hungry for change and hope this can be accomplished, but they also have started to express doubts about Pashinyan’s ability to deliver on his lofty promises. He remains very popular in the country but with public concern shifting from corruption to economic issues such as employment or pensions, discontent about the pace of change may continue to grow.
With the referendum campaign already underway we can expect to see in the coming weeks further confrontation between Pashinyan and the Constitutional Court. If enough votes are secured in favor of the dissolution of the Constitutional Court, it may serve as a public relations win in Pashinyan’s crusade against corruption but the lasting consequences of the referendum on the rule of law in a new democracy are unknown.