The Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan © Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

The Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan © Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan plans to change the country's constitution. According to some, any new constitution is linked to a potential peace agreement with Azerbaijan. The opposition, however, stands firm and screams foul

15/02/2024 -  Onnik James Krikorian

In recent weeks, Yerevan has been awash with claims that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is seeking to make monumental changes to the country’s constitution ahead of a potential agreement to normalise relations with Azerbaijan. Though constitutional reform has been policy for all successive administrations, on January 19, while visiting the Ministry of Justice, Pashinyan made it clear that he would like changes to extend well beyond that.

“[…] the Republic of Armenia needs a new Constitution”, Pashinyan said. “Not constitutional amendments but a new constitution”.

On January 23, the Ministry of Justice submitted a reform plan recommending that the current system of rule by a “stable" or “majority” system of governance should be transformed into a minority model to make it less likely for one party to monopolise power. In particular, however, the constitution “should make the country more competitive in the new geopolitical environment”.

The Armenian opposition reacted harshly, interpreting his words as confirmation of Yerevan being ready to make more concessions to Baku in order to sign a long-delayed peace deal. In particular, those critics believe that the government intends to remove a controversial preamble to the existing constitution that refers to the 1990 Declaration of Independence.

The declaration mentions a 1989 joint decision on the “Reunification of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Mountainous Region of Karabakh”. In August last year, Pashinyan had already fuelled such speculation by noting that the declaration contained a “confrontational narrative with[in] the regional environment that [has] kept us in constant conflicts with our neighbours”.

Speaking on 24 January, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan confirmed Baku had raised concerns with the preamble and other legislation. Discussion would likely be part of talks, he confessed, but on February 1 Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev warned that failure to change the constitution could prevent any agreement.

Yerevan is quick to point out that constitutional reform has long been planned. Pashinyan gained power in 2018 when Serzh Sargsyan attempted to retain power past his two-term limit presidency by becoming prime minister under a constitution reformed three years earlier. Pashinyan attempted to reform the constitution in April 2020, but was prevented from doing so by the pandemic, the 44-day war and snap elections held post-conflict.

Since last year, however, the opposition has also accused Pashinyan of seeking to usher in a ‘fourth republic’ to distance himself from the third, the post-Soviet Republic of Armenia formed in 1991. On February 1, in an interview with Armenian Public Radio, he did not deny such claims. Critics have claimed that could extend to changing state symbols.

Last year, for example, Pashinyan took exception with the some of the current symbols on the country’s coat of arms, and especially the depiction of Mount Ararat in neighbouring Turkey. This year, National Assembly President Alen Simonyan also suggested changing the anthem, something that he has advocated for since 2019, almost a year after Pashinyan’s 2018 Velvet Revolution.

In 2004, Georgia had also changed its state symbols following the Rose Revolution in 2003. This included the flag, coat of arms and national anthem.

The opposition claims that the electorate would reject such changes, especially if the it believed that pressure from Baku was behind them, and possibly even from Ankara. But there are other potential obstacles too. For a referendum to pass, not only should over 50% of voters agree, butthey should not be less than 25 percent of the total electorate.

Even if Armenians were to accept the changes, given the low voter turnout in last year’s Yerevan’s municipal elections, that could prove a tall order. According to others, including Pashinyan ally Aram Sargsyan – brother of the late Defence and Prime Minister assassinated in the parliamentary shootings of 27 October 1999, holding a referendum alongside snap-elections could be a possible solution.

This matches other rumours suggesting that early parliamentary elections could be held given Pashinyan’s falling ratings. Though the opposition is hardly popular, government support could drop even lower by 2026 when the next elections are scheduled.

"As far as I understand […], they will hold the referendum this fall at the latest, and I have no doubts that it will be held on the same day as fresh parliamentary elections", Sargsyan told RFE/RL’s Armenia Service last week. "I think they wouldn't mind […] this spring [but] organising a constitutional referendum takes a lot of time".

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