Introduced by referendum in 1995 under then President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the current constitution has been amended twice by his successors – Robert Kocharyan in 2005 and Serzh Sargsyan in 2015. The second led to demonstrations in 2018 when provisions transforming Armenia from a presidential to parliamentary republic kicked in allowing Sargsyan to retain power past his second and final term in office. Leading the protestors was Nikol Pashinyan so it was not unexpected that he too would change the constitution once in office.
His attempt to do so four years ago was thwarted by the pandemic. Now he is trying again.
Speaking at the Ministry of Justice in January, Pashinyan not only emphasised the necessity of constitutional reform but even argued for a comprehensive overhaul rather than piecemeal amendments. The purpose, he said, in addition to possibly switching from majority to minority governmental system, was to make Armenia “more competitive and viable” in a new “geopolitical and regional situation.” The opposition instinctively interpreted those words as referring to his administration’s attempts to normalise relations with Azerbaijan.
At the heart of these claims is a belief that the preamble in the current constitution referring to the
1990 Declaration of Independence, itself based on the 1989 decision on the “Reunification of the Armenian SSR and the Mountainous Region of Karabakh,” could be removed. The opposition claims that doing so would only be at the behest of Baku. Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan has not categorically denied the claim but does confirm that Azerbaijan continues to raise this issue in negotiations, interpreting the preamble as indisputable claims on its territory.
Certainly, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has taken issue with that text since at least 2021, coincidentally the same year that Pashinyan declared that constitutional reform was unavoidable a little over six months after the 44-day war ended. This month, Baku even stated that no peace agreement could be signed unless Armenia does change its constitution and other apparently problematic legislation.
But even before this year’s controversy, Pashinyan’s critics had anyway alleged that he sought to ‘erase the legacy of the third republic’ in order for the country to move on from the war and and also to absolve himself of any alleged culpability. They also alleged that state symbols would be changed as part of a national “rebranding” in much the same way that Georgia did after the 2003 Rose Revolution when a new coat of arms, flag, and national anthem were adopted soon after.
Indeed, Pashinyan had already questioned the depiction of Mount Ararat, situated outside the borders of the republic, on its coat of arms, resulting in claims that he might be bowing to pressure from Turkiye too. And in August, perhaps to prepare the population for changes to come, he already took specific aim at the Declaration of Independence, concluding that it made conflict between Armenia and its neighbours inevitable. He repeated the same in January, warning that peace will remain elusive if Armenia continues to be guided by its text.
At the same time, National Assembly President Alen Simonyan even suggested changing the national anthem, though he had also made similar calls in 2019 too. Back then, Pashinyan was also planning to amend the constitution, albeit in order to resolve a standoff with the constitutional court made up of judges appointed by the previous regimes. As mentioned earlier, that referendum was only postponed because of the pandemic, with parliament finding other ways to resolve the issue. Pashinyan did nonetheless say that more far-reaching changes would be put before voters in a referendum to be held simultaneously with parliamentary elections then scheduled for 2023.
Incidentally, and somewhat ironically given the controversy surrounding the possible removal of the existing constitution’s preamble today, Pashinyan’s aborted campaign just before the war in 2020 included booklets resembling a passport displaying a map not only of Armenia but also of Karabakh and the then seven occupied regions of Azerbaijan on its cover. Times change, of course, and the circumstances in which Armenia now finds itself in are very different given what followed next.
Something else that has changed, and as demonstrated by last year’s municipal elections in the capital, is Pashinyan’s decreasing popularity. In that context, and with the opposition alleging external pressure from Baku and Ankara, attracting sufficient voters to take part in any new referendum could prove difficult. Others, however, believe that this could be overcome if snap parliamentary elections were to take place alongside the referendum as had been initially planned for 2023. Last year there was anyway speculation that Pashinyan might choose to go to the polls early in order to avoid an even more uphill task if he were to wait until 2026.
Time will tell, but whatever happens next, an unprecedented debate on Armenia’s future and where the small land-locked country stands in the region could be on the near horizon, something that has arguably happened only once before. Forecasting future defeat unless compromise was reached,
Ter-Petrosyan addressed the nation in an article simply entitled War or Peace? Time to get Serious.
Onnik James Krikorian is a journalist, photojournalist, and consultant from the U.K. who has covered the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict since 1994.