May 1, 1992 | Magazine Archive

ARMENIA: BIRTH OF A DEMOCRACY

by David Zenian

YEREVAN – The Armenian Parliament is determined to wipe out the “rubber stamp” image of the Communist legislature it replaced.

The road has been tough, including occasional friction with President Levon Ter Petrossian over the parameters of authority. In one such episode April 28, Ter Petrossian’s closest ally and protege Prime Minister Gagig Harutunian presented his resignation to Parliament after his latest attempt to win the approval of the House on the government’s socio-economic program.

Ter Petrossian, who has the power to “appoint and dismiss” Prime Ministers, turned down the resignation and in what amounted to political arm-twisting, challenged Parliament to a “take it or leave it” position. Soon after the Harutunian Cabinet failed to get the necessary votes for the socio-economic plan, it presented its resignation saying what had happened was in effect a vote of no confidence.

“At this point, Ter Petrossian stormed in. After blasting the Tashnag, Ramgavar and other Parliamentary blocs for their negative votes, he reminded the House that he had the authority to push the plan through by Presidential Decree. He went on to say that if Parliament did not like that solution out of the stalemate, it can call for a popular referendum on the issue,” an Armenian Parliamentary reporter said.

Only two years since its election, Parliament is proving to be as stubborn and determined to advance the cause of democracy as the people who created it from the ashes of the Communist era. “In the old days, Parliament meant nothing more than a rubber stamp, and the deputies were nothing more than robots … not anymore,” says Parliamentarian Vigen Khatchadrian, a scientist-turned-politician.

What was once a one-party Communist “club”, the 243-member House has now more than a dozen committees including members from eight registered Blocs of political factions, parties, and independents. The largest, the Armenian National Movement of President Levon Ter Petrossian, holds 56 seats, followed by the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (Ramgavar) with 14 seats, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Tashnag) with 11 seats, the National Democratic Union of former Prime Minister Vazgen Manoogian with 10 seats, and the Baruyr Hayrikian faction with 2 seats.

Other smaller aspiring “factions” are the Republican Party which holds one seat like the Union of Constitutional Rights Party.

On the other side of the aisle are a group of “officially uncommitted” 120 members of Parliament – mainly the remnants of the former Communist Party which was recently legalized in Armenia unlike most other republics of the former Soviet Union. “We all know that most of these 120 are former Communists, but at the moment they are all reluctant to come out of their closets despite the legalization of the party,” a young Parliamentarian said.

Elected in May 1990 for a five-year term, the Armenian Parliament is in session six months of the year and most of the time, sometimes reluctantly however, approves the decisions of the executive branch of the government. Sending draft laws back for re-examination is more of a rule than an exception.

But the highly vocal and often rebellious Parliament also finds itself tied down and even disoriented at times because of the absence of a national constitution which is still on the drawing board.

Under the existing framework, the Presidency remains the highest source of authority, and President Levon Ter Petrossian “the final word” in all major decisions. It is the President who appoints the Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet without consulting Parliament. The Cabinet does not need to receive a vote of confidence from Parliament to establish its legitimacy.

“All this is done by Presidential Decree … but Parliament has the power to dismiss both the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, provided it musters enough votes to do it,” says Parliamentarian Mekhag Kaprielian.

According to the nation’s provisional laws or the amended sections of the old Communist constitution which the Parliament uses as a guideline pending the completion of a new one, members of Cabinet can be impeached by a two-third majority vote from the House.

“If we muster only 51 percent of the vote, the President has the power to veto our decision. In that case, Parliament will need a two-thirds majority to dismiss a Cabinet minister,” an official said.

But despite its legislative powers, Parliament is still learning the “tools of the trade”.

“A clear and functional Constitution is a priority, without which an element of uncertainty will prevail in the relations between Parliament and the Presidency. As things are today, the line between where one’s authority starts and where the other’s authority ends is not clear,” Kaprielian said.

A special committee is working on the constitution and is said to have made considerable progress.

In the meantime, and in the presence of this gray area, some Parliamentarians fear a conflict between the legislative and executive branches of government is imminent.

For example, the nation’s foreign policy has not been brought to the Parliament floor for discussion and deliberation. There is a Parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee, but its work has been nothing more than “academic”.

“We need to be able to say the final word in foreign policy matters, but at the moment, the whole thing is in the President’s hand. Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian is still to appear before Parliament to tell us what he is doing. We have seen him on television, but not on the Parliament floor,” says Kaprielian with a grin.

Other Parliamentarians say they feel their hands are tied in matters of national destiny. “It is the President who has the authority to declare war or sign a peace treaty. The executive branch is negotiating with several international organizations without consulting Parliament,” says another House member.

But if Parliament feels it is being restrained, the executive branch of government says it too is under too much scrutiny and procrastinating Parliamentary control.

“We send a draft law to a Parliamentary committee for discussion and the process takes forever. Once it leaves the committee, it goes to the Parliament floor and ends up being bounced back and forth between the floor and the committee. All this delays our work,” complained a Cabinet minister.

Amid suggestions of an interim “rule by decree”, the war-of-words between the executive and legislative branches of government continues.

While heated at times, the argument, however, remains within the framework of the democratic process which started with the mass participation of the population in the birth of an independent nation.

People still turn up at Opera Square to air their grievances, but the future of the democratic process remains in the hands of Parliament, the energetic machine determined to live up to the hopes and expectations of the nation it represents.

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