Now that Armenia is officially a parliamentary republic, it could have important implications for the future of the nation’s relations with Russia.

After the majority of the Armenian voters supported the constitutional amendments on Dec. 6, 2015, the current president Serzh Sargsyan receives a legal opportunity to remain in power while leaving his post. Photo: AP

On Dec. 6, a constitutional referendum took place in Armenia. The voters were invited to have their say on several important amendments to the nation’s constitution. This is not the first time this Transcaucasian republic has instituted a constitutional change. In fact, this constitutional referendum is the third one in the history of post-Soviet Armenia.

For some time after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the newly independent state lived by the constitution that had been adopted as far back as 1978, when the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic had been in existence. The first post-Soviet constitution was adopted by popular vote on July 5, 1995. It lasted ten years.

In November 2005, a second referendum was held, which passed a new constitution. The changes to the constitution involved widening of the Parliament’s authority regarding the nomination of the cabinet of ministers while reducing the presidential prerogatives regarding the appointment of judges. It also introduced elections in the system of municipal self-government. A few years later, a city parliament in the form of the Council of Elders came into being in Yerevan.

What is the essence of the latest amendments to the Armenian constitution? What impact can they have on the republic’s domestic situation and its foreign policy?

What will change with Armenia’s new constitution?

The constitutional amendments transform Armenia into a parliamentary republic. A new president will no longer be elected by popular vote as before, but rather, by the votes of the members of the national parliament. The real power, in its fullness, will be concentrated in the supreme legislative body and the government.

In short, the party that wins parliamentary elections will play a more important role. Previously, these elections had been no more than a prelude for the presidential campaign and a kind of test for the country’s administrative system. In the future political system, the winner of these elections will be the force that takes control of the representative branch, forms the government and determines a candidate for the post of prime minister. Under that scenario, parliamentary elections will be the key political event in the country.

From a formal, legal point of view, one could speak of Armenia’s progress toward a more democratic rule. However, politics (especially in the post-Soviet republics) has its own peculiarities, many of which are not reducible to seemingly flawless legal formulae.

Firstly, it is noteworthy that Armenia’s neighbor country, Georgia, followed the same path a few years ago. At the time, President Mikheil Saakashvili initiated reforms designed to redistribute the powers in favor of the parliament and the government.  

However, the real motivation of Saakashvili was no secret to Georgian politicians and experts. Being unable to prolong his stay on Georgia’s political Olympus, Saakashvili strove to remain at the head of the country in a new role – as prime minister rather than president. It had seemed that, to achieve that goal, he only had to solve the problem of winning a parliamentary majority in the elections of 2012.

This proved impossible for him though, and it was not his party, Unified National Movement, but the coalition Georgian Dream that had the upper hand and gained the right to form the government. It took the new governing party only a year to reshape the country’s domestic political landscape – without Saakashvili this time.

Today, too, as the prospects of the current Armenian President, Serzh Sargsyan, are being discussed, the question of ensuring the continuity of power comes to the forefront. According to the constitution of 2005, the head of the republic cannot keep his post for more than two terms successively. Yet, after the majority of the Armenian voters supported the constitutional amendments on Dec. 6, 2015, the current president receives a legal opportunity to remain in power while leaving his post.

What exactly Serzh Sargsyan is going to become, is of secondary importance. Given that his party (Republican) wins the parliamentary elections, he may be elected head of parliament, become prime minister or retain the post of the party leader who controls the nomination of the legislative body speaker and the head of the executive power. In short, the range of outcomes is variable.

However, already today the Armenian opposition views the possibility of placing the president in such a high-profile role after his stepping down from his post critically. Thus, it is no accident that the opposition staged mass protest actions before the day of the referendum. And it is not improbable that that those actions will be continued after the results of the referendum have been announced.

Read Russia Direct's report: "Frozen Conflicts in the Post-Soviet Space"

Implications for the future of Armenia

What are the chances, though, that the Armenians will not repeat the errors made by their Georgian neighbors? The preliminary results of the vote allow various interpretations. And certainly, both the party in power and the opposition will make use of that. As a matter of fact, the opposition is already claiming abuse of administrative resources and large-scale violations in the counting of votes. Just over one-half (50.5 percent) of all the voters took part in the referendum, and 63.3 percent of those voted in support of the constitutional amendments.

Thus, formally, the amendments have been approved. However, if the proportion of supporters of the new constitution is computed with respect to the total number of voters, the figure is 32.17 percent. Although this is no violation from the formal point of view, this result can hardly be called an overwhelming victory.

Currently, Armenia is going through an electoral pause. The new electoral cycle will start in 2017, with parliamentary elections. It appears that the authorities mean to prepare themselves for the campaign in good time. This is facilitated to some extent by the disunity of the opposition and its lack of charismatic leaders capable of rallying all those discontented. The manifestations of social protest that took place this summer confirmed the deficiencies that had been characteristic of the opposition previously.

On the other hand, the support of the constitutional amendments at the referendum should not make the presidential team “drunk with success.” The socioeconomic situation in the republic is complicated, and the public discontent with the powers is strong. True, there is the problem of converting this discontent into an articulated political program. However, this does not mean the presidential team has carte blanche to do as it pleases. As the new electoral cycle approaches, the pressure may increase. The opposition has two years to put its ranks in order.

How should Moscow respond?

An alteration of the national constitution and the elections are Armenia’s internal affairs. On the other hand, the country is regarded by Russia as its key ally in Transcaucasia. Armenia is the only country of the region that is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

For that reason, any changes in the country are extremely important to Russia. In this connection, the current situation implies a difficult choice. Russia can give full support to the Armenian authorities on the assumption that they are the best bet in terms of promoting Russian interests. This is the customary approach, which does not call for ingenuity or creative solutions.

The danger, though, is that in the event of a change of power, the new leaders will treat the Kremlin with suspicion. Considerable efforts will then have to be made to build positive relations between the countries. Arguably, one should not wait passively for such a scenario to materialize. It is much more productive to prepare today already for every possible scenario.

Diversified relations should be built with all the political forces in Armenia, with an emphasis not so much on the person of the leader (or persons of the leading group), but on the strengthening of Russian-Armenian strategic cooperation in the Larger Caucasus.

Accordingly, Russia should avoid getting directly involved in Armenia’s internal disputes or making “bets” on one or another politician. Instead, wide contacts should be built across the whole Armenian political spectrum, from members of the parliament and business leaders to cultural figures and representatives from the non-governmental sector.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.