By Mark Dovich
Armenia's constitutional referendum originally scheduled for April 5 will be postponed indefinitely in light of the ongoing coronavirus crisis in the country. That was Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s announcement at a press conference on May 16.
Pashinyan is now projecting that Armenia will grapple with the disease “for at least a year”. Nevertheless, and in spite of the continuing rise in the number of infections, the government recently loosened most of the coronavirus-related restrictions on economic and social activity that it put in place in mid-March.
The referendum was first called on February 6, when Armenia’s National Assembly approved a bill calling for citizens to vote on whether or not to dissolve the country’s Constitutional Court. If approved, the referendum would have amended Armenia’s constitution to eliminate a grandfather clause that allows judges appointed before April 2018, when a 12-year term limit was introduced, to serve beyond that limit.
If the referendum had been approved, seven of the Constitutional Court’s nine judges, all of whom were appointed before Pashinyan took office following the 2018 Velvet Revolution, would have been removed. Pashinyan has repeatedly criticized the court, calling it at one rally “the only remaining institution in Armenia that is not in compliance with the current constitution.”
At the press conference, Pashinyan clarified that his administration was now looking into other options to resolve the issue, though he noted that the government was still planning on conducting the referendum in the future, now tentatively scheduled for June 2021.
Another option Pashinyan highlighted involves passing legislation through the National Assembly to remove Constitutional Court judges, bypassing voters entirely. To that end, a Commission on Constitutional Amendments has already been convened in the parliament, where Pashinyan’s My Step alliance holds a majority of seats.
Several days earlier, Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan announced that the Armenian government had asked the Venice Commission to issue an opinion on the constitutionality of removing Constitutional Court judges through a legislative initiative. Government critics have argued that such a move would violate the separation of powers guaranteed in Armenia’s constitution. The Venice Commission is an advisory body of the Council of Europe that provides guidance to member states on issues of constitutional law.
The referendum had been seen as the culmination of an ongoing clash between Pashinyan and the Constitutional Court’s prerevolutionary judges, particularly court head Hrayr Tovmasyan. Pashinyan considers Tovmasyan an ally of the previous authorities and an impediment to the government’s efforts to implement judicial reform. Armenia’s judiciary ranks among the country’s least trusted state bodies, reportedly suffering from pervasive corruption at all levels. Pashinyan has repeatedly labeled judicial reform a major priority for his administration. However in his press-conference on May 16 Pashinyan, asked about the status of judicial reforms and judges’ vetting, said that he was not going to implement rapid reform. “There were important reforms that were not successful due to their rapid implementation,” he said.
Two previous attempts by the government to remove Tovmasyan—one by a direct appeal to the Constitutional Court to impeach him, the other by passing legislation that provides judges with significant financial incentives to resign voluntarily—failed last year. Both initiatives provoked severe criticism from opposition lawmakers at the time. Prior to his appointment to the Constitutional Court in March 2018, Tovmasyan was Armenia’s Justice Minister (2013-14), chief of the parliament staff (2014-17), member of parliament (2017-18). In 2012-18 he was a member of the Republican Party of Armenia.