Armenia to Vote on a Parliamentary Republic Amid Controversy

  • Change will boost democracy, security, president says
  • Sargsyan bidding to keep power after term ends, opponents say

Armenia holds a referendum on Sunday to become a parliamentary republic in a move initiated by President Serzh Sargsyan. Opponents say he’s paving the way to retain power as prime minister when his term ends.

Sargsyan rules the country of 3 million people under a semi-presidential system that allows him to appoint and fire the prime minister as well as control foreign and defense policy. Those powers will transfer to parliament under the proposed constitutional changes and the head of state will be a largely ceremonial figure elected indirectly instead of by popular vote.

“The problem of two mandates, the president’s and the prime minister’s” creates potential conflict under the current system and is “a threat to our national security,” Sargsyan said in a televised interview Tuesday. Armenia will foster democracy, “not a strong hand,” by adopting parliamentary rule, he said.

Armenia is the second former Soviet republic in the volatile Caucasus region to seek constitutional change after neighboring Georgia switched to a parliamentary system when President Mikheil Saakashvili left office in 2013. Sargsyan’s emphasis on stability comes amid rising tensions with Azerbaijan in the conflict over the Nagorno-Karakakh region, and neighboring Turkey’s confrontation with Russia, Armenia’s ally, after the downing of a warplane near the Syrian border.

Russian Interest

Some opponents accuse Sargsyan of seeking to prepare the ground for an unpopular comprise on Nagorno-Karabakh by concentrating authority in parliament for approving any deal. Russia, which has a key military base in Armenia, is keen to resolve the conflict to reinforce its position in the region amid international tensions over its intervention in Syria, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia’s first president from 1991 to 1998, wrote in a Nov. 26 letter published on the website.

The New Armenia movement, which is holding daily protests in the capital, Yerevan, against the vote, says Sargsyan wants to prolong his grip on power after his second and final presidential term ends in early 2018. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which reviewed the constitutional amendments in October, called them “a further important step forward in the transition of Armenia toward democracy.”

Sarsgyan hasn’t ruled out seeking the premiership under the revised constitution, saying he’ll discuss it only if his ruling Republican Party retains a majority in 2017 parliamentary elections. “You can seriously speak of becoming prime minister or forming a government only if you have a majority,” he said in the interview with TV channel chiefs.

‘Ruling Oligarchy’

Armenia’s state institutions are “riddled with corruption and nepotism” and the new constitution “will only entrench the ruling oligarchy and disenfranchise the electorate even further,”  Lilit Gevorgyan, senior economist at IHS Global Insight in London, said by e-mail. The changes are a “fine example of how seemingly progressive improvements can be highly damaging for the country’s political and economic development.”

New Armenia, which includes opposition parties and civic groups, is urging voters to reject the changes. Activists say they also want to turn Sunday’s vote into a referendum on Sargysan’s presidency in a country whose economy still feels the impact of last year’s currency slump triggered by the financial crisis in Russia.

‘Succession Issues’

“The people reject the constitutional changes simply because they reject Serzh Sargsyan,” Levon Zurabian, deputy chairman of the former ruling Armenian National Congress, said at an opposition rally on Thursday.

Both sides say they’re confident of victory. A Nov. 24 poll of 1,300 people across Armenia by the APR Group, a research organization, found 35.8 percent intend to vote for the changes and 31.8 percent against. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.7 percent.

Rulers “in need of a political facelift” in former Soviet republics in Central Asia, Azerbaijan and Belarus may draw inspiration from Armenia if the changes are adopted, Gevorgyan said. They want to resolve “their succession issues” and Sargysan’s “innovative approach offers a cleaner and easier transfer of power within the ruling elite or family.”

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