Prague, 23 November, 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Armenian opposition is talking a good fight. It is boycotting the 27 November referendum, it says, because the vote is a pretense of democracy. Former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovanissian, who has joined the call for a boycott, described the government this week as a "regime that supports thieves, murderers, and corrupt individuals."
Like other opposition leaders, Hovanissian is calling for a campaign of "civil disobedience."
"From the afternoon of Friday, 25th November, we will transform [Yerevan's] Opera Square into an arena of freedom," Hovanissian said. "I invite all citizens of the Republic of Armenia to take part in a civil-assembly initiative that on November 27th will become a powerful national demonstration."
Yet, the opposition finds itself out on a limb. The European Union, the Council of Europe, and the United States have described the proposed changes to the constitution as vital to the process of reform. Yesterday, the president of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, Rene van der Linden, effectively threw his weight against the opposition by urging all voters to participate. It was, he said, an opportunity for Armenians to show their commitment to Europe.
Failure of the referendum due to a low turnout would be a major setback for Armenia's progress in fulfilling some of the most important commitments the country made when joining the Council of Europe.
The Venice Commission, which advises the Council of Europe on constitutional law, gave its support to the package of constitutional amendments contained in the referendum in July after the Armenian authorities accepted most of its recommendations. On paper, at least, the changes would transfer many powers from the president to the parliament, the Cabinet of Ministers, and the judiciary. They would also strengthen respect for human rights. But Aghas Yenokyan, an independent political analyst in Yerevan, explains that the opposition has lost faith in the democratic process in Armenia.
"The laws on the constitution are not very important thing for the reality in Armenia," Yenokian said. "The opposition doesn't believe much in the changes that would occur during the democratic process. They know that there is just one way -- and actually they were encouraged by our neighbors in CIS countries (Eds. a reference to the Rose Revolution in Georgia) -- to change the current situation, which is [the exertion of pressure] by the public, by demonstrations."
In reality, though, the biggest obstacle facing the safe passage of the amendments is not so much the opposition boycott as popular apathy. At least one-third of the total electorate must vote in its favor -- and more than 50 percent of those who actually vote. It could be a tall order, at least according to recent opinion polls, which suggest there will be a low turnout.
President Robert Kocharian needs to overcome both voter indifference and ignorance of the constitution. This week, he stepped up his campaign to win support.
"We have quite a large quantity of printed copies of the draft, which we will try to deliver to every single family in Armenia, so that out public gets the chance to draw its own conclusions not just from commentary but directly for itself," Kocharian said.
His supporters say they are confident. Galust Sahakian, who is a senior member of the ruling coalition, is predicting an overwhelming victory in the poll.
"Judging by the meetings I have had with people, as well as what my own intuition and analysis tell me, I'd say it will be about 80 percent to 20 percent in favor of a 'yes' vote," Sahakian said.
It is claims like that, though, that convince both opposition supporters and neutrals alike that the government has no intention of ensuring a free and fair referendum. Their confidence is further undermined by the virtual absence of foreign observers. The Council of Europe is sending just seven, while the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which had more than 600 observers at the recent parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, is not deploying any for the Armenian referendum because it has had no formal invitation from the authorities.
The odds are stacked, it seems, against the opposition. Its position enjoys no international support, it has had limited access to media in Armenia to explain its case and, just like the government, it has to overcome popular apathy. Political analyst Aghas Yenokian is dismissive of the opposition's chances.
"I think the opposition will not succeed, they will fail, they cannot make [a] really big demonstration," Yenokian said. "Kocharian will go to cheat the results because -- as far as I can understand the situation in Armenia -- people just don't care about the constitutional changes."
So where will the referendum leave Armenia? Failure would deliver a remarkable blow to the prestige of Robert Kocharian and his government. But it would also leave the country with a constitution that is widely regarded as seriously flawed. In Armenia, though, few doubt the published results will reveal a government triumph. Whether or not the amendments will change anything for the better is another matter.
Armenian President Robert Kocharian (file photo)
A PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM OR A PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEM? The Armenian government has issued a pamphlet of frequently asked questions about the 27 November referendum in order to get the state's view across. To read a complete translation of this document, click here.