A year ago Armenia made amendments to its constitution, transforming the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic. Among other things, the amendments gave the Armenian authorities more room to maneuver while dealing with foreign partners.
Armenia's President Serzh Sargsyan seen ahead of a session of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Photo: Mikhail Metzel/TASS
One year ago, on Dec. 6, 2015 Armenia approved a constitutional reform, as a result of which the previously semi-presidential Armenia became a parliamentary republic. The political factors behind the amendment, however, opened significant room for speculation.
The consensus viewpoint - especially among the opposition candidates - was that President Serzh Sargsyan, who is also head of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, wishes to prolong, if not to perpetuate, his rule becoming something akin to the Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Predicting whether this is true or not is mere guesswork, as only the 2017 Armenian parliamentary elections will show whether these fears have any validity. However, there are three major political issues that were overlooked by the mass media and pundits, who were predominantly focused on Sargsyan’s future career.
Article 205 of the amended Constitution states the following: “The question of membership of the Republic of Armenia in supranational international organizations, as well as concerning the territorial integrity of the Republic of Armenia shall be solved through a referendum.”
What does it imply, given the current geopolitical situtation? Let’s start with the supranational organizations.
Armenia is already a member of two Russia-led military and economic unions – the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). However, now, after the constitutional amendments, Armenian authorities know how to reply if certain Western politicians suggest leaving the CSTO or EEU and joining NATO or EU instead.
The Constitution might also be invoked if Armenia sees a wave of mass street protests in favor of the EU similar to those that happened in Ukraine in 2013. Even if the Armenian authorities agree to hold a referendum in accordance with Article 205 (2), they are still released of any burden to justify themselves before their Western and Russian counterparts.
Hence, one may conclude that the amended Constitution further bolsters the relations of Armenia with Russia, as the authorities no longer have the ability to change the nation's foreign alignment drastically, as happened on Sept. 3, 2013 when Armenia suddenly and unexpectedly announced its willingness to join the EEU.
It is worth mentioning that the sudden announcement of the Armenian President followed the negotiations on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU that lasted for more than three years. Therefore, for another abrupt turnaround of the foreign vector of Armenia (this time in the opposite direction, from Russia to the EU), the West would need to deal not with the authorities of Armenia, but with the Armenian population.
Secondly, and even more importantly, the amended Constitution precludes any kind of territorial swaps with neighbors by the authorities of the country. For example, some time ago, the so-called ''Goble Plan'' was being discussed, which suggested the following territorial concessions to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue: “sending part of [Nagorno-Karabakh] to Armenia, with the area controlling the headwaters of the river flowing to Baku and areas of Azerbaijani population remaining in Azerbaijani hands; and transferring the Armenian-controlled landbridge between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan to Azerbaijani control.”
Hence, the Constitution is becoming an iron shield making the Armenian authorities impermeable, saving their image both at home and abroad. Undoubtedly, the West has less leverage on Armenia vis-à-vis Russia. So, it would be more difficult to reject similar proposals from Russia in the future. Thus, with constitutional amendments, the farsighted Armenian authorities precluded the prospect of succumbing to possible pressure from Russia.
And, finally, the constitutional amendments should be considered in light of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. In his famous article entitled “War or Peace? Time for Thoughtfulness” the first President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, argues that “the compromise will satisfy all the sides… however, the Azerbaijani opposition will argue that Aliyev [Heydar Aliyev was the third President of Azerbaijan – Editor’s Note] sold and betrayed Karabakh, while the Armenian opposition will argue that I sold and betrayed Karabakh.”
Notably, not only the political opposition, but also radical extremists under the slogan “everything or nothing,” would treat every concession as treason. Allegedly, the armed group that called itself “Sasna Tsrer” (Daredevils of Sassoun), among other reasons, captured a police station building to prevent possible territorial concessions.
One of these hawkish and hot-headed ultranationalists, Yigal Amir, killed the former Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Amir radically opposed Rabin’s peace initiative in resolving the conflict with Palestine and particularly the singinig of the Oslo Accords, which among other points, implied a withdrawal of the Israeli military from Palestinian territories.
So, how does the adopted Constitution prevent the occurrence of a Rabin-like scenario in Armenia, given that Israel is also a parliamentary democracy?
First and foremost, the Israeli Prime Minister has wider authority than the Prime Minister of Armenia according to the newly-adopted Constitution. Remarkably, the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also performs the functions of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Furthermore, Israel has no Constitution (“The Basic Laws” are not considered to be a Constitution).
On the other hand, Armenia lacks a long tradition of having a parliamentary democracy, hence its leaders may put any offer of concession to vote in the National Assembly by invoking the letter and spirit of the amended Constitution. The Constitution paves the way for the Armenian leaders to argue that neither the President nor the Prime Minister are in a position to make important decisions regarding concessions on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue solely without the consent of the Parliament.
To conclude, it is reasonable to argue that the Armenian leaders initiated the Constitutional amendments to avoid personal responsibility for the most crucial decisions and for shifting the burden of responsibility from one or a few persons to either the Parliament or the people. In all likelihood, the Armenian authorities initiated constitutional amendments bearing in mind the huge energy and security dependence of Armenia on Russia.
On the one hand, with Article 205, Armenian authorities showed their Russian partners that the pro-Russian foreign policy course of Armenia is practically irrevocable. Nonetheless, on the other hand, the amended Constitution leaves Armenian authorities more room to maneuver while dealing with foreign partners regarding the issues that are of utmost importance for Armenia.
One may argue that the authorities could be pushed to simply change Article 205 of the newly-adopted Constitution via a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly. Nevertheless, the authorities may easily evade such a scenario by playing the trump card of domestic political constituencies, which would enable them to qualify such an amendment as undermining democratic values.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.