Why Pashinyan pushes on with referendum

Why Pashinyan pushes on with referendum

Last week, the Armenian government approved the bill on making amendments and supplements to the law on referendum, accelerating the procedure for revoking and resuming a scheduled expression of will. If earlier a referendum could be held no earlier than 50 and no later than 65 days after the end of the state of emergency or martial law, at the current initiative of the Cabinet of Ministers, it is enough for the president to sign the corresponding decree within three days after the state of emergency is lifted and set a new voting date.

The initiative ignores the epidemiological or humanitarian consequences that may occur during the adaptation period after the state of emergency is lifted, but it satisfies the interests of power structures aimed at faster political decision-making.

Last week, two main topics were in the spotlight in Armenia. The first thing is linked to unpromising intermediate results of the fight against COVID-19. The second topic is scandals and accusations linked to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his family. The prime minister’s apparatus stably explains problems with the spread of COVID-19 with the complex international epidemiological situation and the overburdened national health system. Armenia's PM Nikol Pashinyan could not comment on Armenia's former Ambassador to the Holy See Mikayel Minasyan's statements, who accused him of carrying out entrepreneurial activities and laundering financial resources. During another Facebook live stream, Pashinyan limited himself to two incoherent remarks, asking not to contact him again with a request to comment or refute this kind of information.

Ex-president Serzh Sargsyan's son-in-law Mikayel Minasyan is far from being the most popular person in 'post-revolutionary' Armenia. However, his words prompted the active part of society to pay attention to the Pashinyan family's sources of income. Criticizing the prime minister for his inexperience in dealing with seasoned corrupt officials, Minasyan publicized unconfirmed information suggesting the existence of a large corruption system centered on Pashinyan’s wife Anna Hakobyan and her charitable foundations. According to skeptics, Hakobyan’s business became shared in the republic's successful financial sectors, as well as in diaspora projects outside Armenia through the entrepreneurial activities of charitable foundations. The legislation on foundations in Armenia has already been amended and they can engage in economic activities. And given that Pashinyan’s wife is pursuing an active informational policy in the Haykakan Zhamanak newspaper, it is possible that the funds created under Hakobyan's leadership can be turned into a political tool through which corrupt oligarchs can 'pay off' from prosecution. Hakobyan herself added oil to the flames, saying that she doesn't care about the origin of the money invested in her funds.

The focus of the referendum on no confidence in the judges of the Armenian Constitutional Court and its chairman Hrayr Tovmasyan should have been the idea of justice and the fight against embezzling elements of the previous regime. But over the past three weeks, not a single day of Nikol Pashinyan has been without excuses. If in the first ten days of March Pashinyan was confident that more than 1.5 million people would support the draft amendments to the Constitution, now the threat of a boycott has loomed over the referendum. Now Pashinyan is not at all sure of the outcome of the voting. Local protest actions near the Central Bank building, the government building, in rural communities and medical facilities serve as an indicator that it's not the time for voting. However, perhaps Pashinyan fears that if the referendum is not held at least this year, then he can completely forget about it in the future, as the country will be busy with the consequences of the pandemic.

Opponents of Pashinyan's idea are corrupt elites who do not want to change anything in their lifestyle. Armenian oligarchs are annoyed by the fact that they are forced to "buy the right" to continue doing business in the country. Therefore, any scandal such as fraud involving the import and export of smuggled diamonds or cigarettes will certainly be fueled with one goal - destroying the reputation of "people's tribune" Pashinyan.

It is premature to talk that the coronavirus crisis in Armenia is about to be overcome soon, therefore it is important for Pashinyan to concentrate the public's attention on the processes on which his political future depends. Without a referendum, the prime minister will not be able to influence  Armenia's judicial system, and accordingly, will not be able to complete the criminal proceedings initiated against the previous leaders, and therefore will not be able to guarantee his re-election. The political exposure flywheel cannot be started at will. This requires regular public opinion measurements. Pashinyan needs to demonstrate to his opponents as soon as possible that people on the street are ready to support him, despite the fact that the government has mobilized police forces everywhere.