Armenian constitutional reform sparks concerns

‘Hayakve’ initiative press conference (Facebook, February 6, 2024)

YEREVAN—Avetik Chalabyan, the coordinator of the “Hayakve” initiative, issued a stark warning during a February 6 press conference regarding the dangers posed by proposed constitutional reforms in Armenia.

Chalabyan said that under the pretext of constitutional amendments, there is a concerted effort to erode Armenian statehood, transforming the country into a semi-state entity beholden to Turkey and Azerbaijan. He accused the current administration of openly capitulating to pressure from Baku and using the threat of war to coerce the populace into accepting unconstitutional changes.

On January 19, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced plans for a new Constitution. He argued that, rather than simply amend the current Constitution, Armenia requires a new legal framework to enhance its competitiveness and viability in light of evolving geopolitical dynamics.

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has appeared to lend credence to the conspiracy theories circulating in Armenia that Pashinyan is submitting to Azerbaijani demands. On February 1, Aliyev said that peace could be achieved between Armenia and Azerbaijan if the former revises its Constitution and other relevant documents. Aliyev highlighted Armenia’s Declaration of Independence, which is cited in the preamble of the Constitution, as a point of contention, viewing its reference to the unification of Armenia with Artsakh as a territorial claim against Azerbaijan.

In an interview with Armenian Public Radio on February 1, Prime Minister Pashinyan expressed concerns that maintaining references to the Declaration of Independence in the Constitution could hinder peace efforts. He said that Armenia’s economic growth and military reforms might be perceived as preparation for war, potentially leading to hostility from neighboring countries.

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan initially downplayed rumors linking the proposed constitutional changes to peace negotiations, but later acknowledged Azerbaijan’s concerns regarding Armenia’s Declaration of Independence.

Mirzoyan said that both countries had identified legal issues within each other’s constitutions and provided clarifications. However, the Armenian opposition accuses the government of aiming to remove references to the Declaration of Independence from the Constitution, particularly those pertaining to the reunification of Armenia and Artsakh. This controversy underscores the complex dynamics at play as both nations navigate the path to lasting peace and stability in the region.

The “Hayakve” initiative, known for its advocacy against recognizing Artsakh as part of Azerbaijan, has consistently opposed such measures. During the February 6 press conference, Chalabyan reiterated the initiative’s commitment to upholding Armenia’s national goals, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. He emphasized the determination of the initiative’s participants to resist the government’s anti-national agenda through all available legal means.

Chalabyan reminded attendees that the “Hayakve” initiative seeks to criminalize any recognition of Artsakh as part of Azerbaijan, proposing severe penalties, including imprisonment, for officials who do so. The initiative also aims to penalize denial of the Armenian Genocide.

Chalabyan warned of the grave consequences of succumbing to dishonor, stressing the imperative of preserving Armenia’s sovereignty and historical legacy amid mounting threats.

Armenian opposition figures have accused PM Pashinyan of capitulating to Azerbaijani pressure by seeking to remove any mention of Artsakh and the Armenian Genocide from the constitution, potentially leading to further concessions from Armenia to Azerbaijan and Turkey.

During a February 6 session of the Armenian National Assembly, Artur Khachatryan, a deputy of the “Hayastan” faction, raised concerns over what he perceives as a threat to Armenia’s independence and sovereignty.

Khachatryan highlighted the presence of Azerbaijani troops on 150-200 square kilometers of Armenia’s territory, criticizing the government’s inaction in addressing this issue. He accused the authorities of complacency in the face of Turkish and Azerbaijani demands, particularly regarding proposed changes to the Armenian Constitution.

“The Turks demand that we change the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia,” stated Khachatryan, suggesting that the government’s efforts in drafting constitutional amendments have been influenced by Turkish pressure. He drew a comparison to General Douglas MacArthur’s demand for constitutional changes in Japan following its capitulation after World War II. 

Khachatryan criticized what he described as a capitulant political force within Armenia, which he believes is allowing Turkish interference and undermining Armenian sovereignty. He suggested that the proposed amendments may be influenced by external forces, particularly Azerbaijan, with the intention of weakening Armenia.

Khachatryan is one of several lawmakers from the “Hayastan” faction who the Armenian Foreign Ministry has permitted to see a confidential document outlining several proposals for an Armenia-Azerbaijan peace treaty. In a February 6 interview with Azatutyun, Khachatryan refrained from divulging specifics of the draft peace agreement, yet shared his skepticism about Azerbaijan’s genuine commitment to peace, suggesting that Azerbaijan lacks sincere intentions for reconciliation.

Khachatryan argued that Azerbaijan’s supposed preference for a stronger Armenia contradicts its historical behavior, suggesting that aggressors typically target weaker states. He highlighted the simultaneous demands made by Aliyev and Pashinyan, hinting at potential manipulation tactics employed by Azerbaijan to influence Armenia’s constitutional reforms.

Gegham Manukyan, also a member of the opposition “Hayastan” faction, has voiced apprehensions regarding the government’s intentions, suggesting that the proposed constitutional amendments are aimed at addressing Azerbaijan’s demands while simultaneously consolidating power within Armenia. 

Manukyan, also having reviewed the draft peace agreement at the Foreign Ministry, said that Pashinyan’s primary objective in this process is clear – to align the constitutional changes with demands outlined in the peace agreement. He told Azatutyun that such a move poses a significant risk to Armenia’s newly established statehood. 

As part of the ongoing endeavor to redefine various aspects of Armenian identity, Alen Simonyan, the Speaker of the National Assembly of Armenia, recently took to Telegram to articulate his support for transforming both the national anthem and coat of arms of the Republic of Armenia.

Abraham Gasparyan, Ph.D., a political scientist and the founder and director of Genesis Armenia, recently voiced his perspective on the proposed alterations to the Armenian Constitution and national symbols. Speaking on his program “Change the Channel with Abraham Gasparyan,” he delved into the significance of national emblems, including anthems, flags and coats of arms, asserting that they serve as mirrors reflecting a nation’s evolving societal landscape and geopolitical context.

Gasparyan underscored the emotive resonance inherent in national anthems, portraying them as potent instruments capable of evoking patriotic sentiments and historical consciousness. He lamented what he perceived as a lack of reverence from the Armenian government, particularly under PM Pashinyan’s administration, towards the national anthem and its profound symbolism. Gasparyan accused the authorities of belittling the sacrifices made by previous generations in the pursuit of national freedom, cautioning that such disregard could precipitate further losses, potentially including the territories of Artsakh and Armenia.

Hoory Minoyan was an active member of the Armenian community in Los Angeles until she moved to Armenia prior to the 44-day war. She graduated with a master's in International Affairs from Boston University, where she was also the recipient of the William R. Keylor Travel Grant. The research and interviews she conducted while in Armenia later became the foundation of her Master’s thesis, “Shaping Identity Through Conflict: The Armenian Experience.” Hoory continues to follow her passion for research and writing by contributing to the Armenian Weekly.