The Rationale for Constitutional Changes in Karabakh is Not Clear. Emil Sanamyan

Emil Sanamyan, a Washington based journalist and expert on the South Caucasus spoke to CivilNet about the process of constitutional changes in Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NK). According to the new draft constitution that was introduced this month Nagorno Karabakh becomes a presidential republic from semi-presidential form of government. The position of prime minister will be abolished with more powers in the hands of president.

When the concept of NK new constitution was introduced the argument was that the republic’s security challenges require more concentration of power in president’s hands, while Armenia with similar challenges changed the constitution for parliamentary republic. In your opinion what is the rationale of the constitutional changes in NK? Are these security arguments grounded?

The current rationale for the constitutional changes in Karabakh is not clear. What is clear is that the April 2016 military escalation in Karabakh had an impact on the content of proposed constitutional reform.

Prior to April, NKR leaders considered switching to parliamentary system, mirroring the changes adopted in the Republic of Armenia in December 2015. Such adjustment in Karabakh, mirroring Armenia, had occurred before. NKR was established as a parliamentary republic in December 1991. However, both due to tensions with the leadership in Yerevan and war with Azerbaijan, NKR first switched to emergency military rule – via the State Defense Committee – in August 1992 and, later, in December 1994 – to presidential system, as did Armenia three years earlier.

While questionable in general, NKR’s switch to parliamentary system would follow in this logical vein. Moreover, growing influence of prime minister Ara Harutyunyan, seen in his Azat Hairenik party’s performance in May 2015 parliamentary election, would become formalized through such a change. However, after April fighting leaders in Stepanakert and more importantly in Yerevan appear to have changed their minds. As NKR MP Hayk Khanumyan has written, the new NKR constitutional proposal was drafted by Hrair Tovmasyan, chief of staff of Armenia’s National Assembly and former justice minister, indicating Yerevan’s strong role in the process. Locally, in Stepanakert, president Bako Sahakyan and others in the military/security bloc of government appear to have decided against transferring political power to Ara Harutyunyan.

Considering the existing political realities in NKR, and most importantly the extent of Yerevan’s influence, I don’t see the security argument for proposed constitutional reform as legitimate or even logical. Existing political system is already overcentralized. If the point is to reduce the frequency of elections in the future – as happened recently in Azerbaijan – a simpler solution would be to dissolve the NKR parliament and hold concurrent leadership elections. As it is, the proposed constitutional proposal and associated discussions, referendum and implementation are a major distraction from security and economic priorities.

The draft constitution envisages 3-year transition period till the end of the current National Assembly’s term, during which the president will be elected by the National Assembly. After the transition period there will be no constitutional ban for the current president to be elected another two terms, thus theoretically ruling till 2030. Are these arguments grounded politically? Do you share the criticism that Bako Sahakyan tailored the constitution to keep power?

In the absence of clarity of president Sahakyan’s intentions after his second term ends in 2017 – as well as similar lack of clarity in president Serge Sargsyan’s intentions after 2018 – speculations are naturally rife that both intend to retain leadership roles under new constitutional frameworks. No doubt, such developments would undermine the tradition of leadership change established by Arkady Ghoukasyan and Robert Kocharyan and raise further questions about the political legacies of Bako Sahakyan and Serge Sargsyan.

The biggest political party in NK – Azat Hayreniq, led by the current prime minister announced its support of the constitutional changes, while it’s leader was considered as one of the main candidates to replace Bako Sahakyan. Now it comes out that the biggest political party does not aspire to nominate its candidate. How would you explain this?

The only explanation I can see for this seemingly politically irrational behavior, is that NKR’s political figures opt to act in deference to the leadership in Yerevan, as well as to NKR’s security priorities. In light of the military escalation, NKR’s business elite – represented by Harutyunyan and his party – seems to have indefinitely postponed whatever political ambitions they have had.

What impact the constitutional changes can have on the NK peace process?

The NK peace process is driven by considerations of American, European and Russian leaders and largely unrelated to domestic organization of the conflicting parties. If tomorrow, Azerbaijan becomes an Islamic republic, or if Armenia establishes a constitutional monarchy, or NKR – a melikdom or khanate – this will have little impact on how major powers deal with this conflict. That said frequent changes of constitutional framework undermine government legitimacy and effectiveness and should be avoided.