Vahan Hovhannesian seeks to restore checks and balances in Armenia’s governance

Calls for an Armenian-Georgian union

by Vincent Lima

Published: Saturday January 26, 2008

Presidential candidate Vahan Hovhannesian  . Armenian Reporter / Armenian Reporter

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Vahan Hovhannesian

Yerevan - "Guaranteed changes in a politically stable environment." That's what Vahan Hovhannesian promises to bring about if he is elected as Armenia's next president. It's not a promise, however, he insists; it's a contractual obligation. His major commitments are listed in a short contract that he has signed; as of January 20, some 120,000 citizens have countersigned, according to the candidate.

Mr. Hovhannesian, 50, is a member of the Bureau, or global executive body, of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) and is his party's nominee. He spoke to the editor of the Armenian Reporter, Associate Editor Maria Titizian, and correspondent Armen Hakobyan on January 7. Armenia's presidential election is slated for February 19.

"There's one extreme that sees no need for change," he had said in Glendale on December 15, referring to Prime Minister and presidential candidate Serge Sargsian. "‘All is well, everyone is smiling, there's construction throughout the city, what need is there for change?' they say. We see the need for change. But the other extreme, the former authorities, that have set out to demolish everything, are unacceptable to us too," he had continued, referring to presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian.

This middle position may seem odd to some, who have long seen Dashnaktsutiun as a hard-line force in Armenian politics. But "balance" appears to be the new watchword for the party, which has been part of the government and a critic of government policies at the same time. Even on foreign policy, where Dashnaktsutiun traditionally has taken a maximalist position, the soft-spoken Mr. Hovhannesian speaks of a peaceful process of regional integration.

"Under the constitution, the president's basic responsibility - besides the obvious responsibilities to maintain national security and the constitutional order - is to maintain balance among the arms of government," said Mr. Hovhannesian, who is a deputy speaker of Armenia's National Assembly. "It is that balance that is upset in Armenia today. The Constitution lives a separate life; real life is something else entirely."

Mr. Hovhannesian said he seeks to bring "the Constitution and real life into the same plane."

Supervising judges

To do so, and to restore faith in government, Mr. Hovhannesian would start with "the places where the citizen comes into contact with the state" and above all, the courts. Judges would come "under very strict oversight on the part of the president, and all intervention in judicial processes by other state entities, other officials, or ‘the strong' in general" would be "out of the question."

Asked whether strict presidential oversight would not be a form of intervention by the strong, Mr. Hovhannesian said there is "an established mechanism for oversight of the judiciary. It is not the personal phone calls and pressure of the president. There is a Council of Justice, which has the right to really review the performance of judges. What we need is to plug this mechanism in and use it. I'm not talking about some sort of extra­constitutional intervention."

Mr. Hovhannesian was asked about the recent dismissal, through that constitutional process, of Judge Pargev Ohanian, who had rendered a rare not-guilty verdict in a criminal case brought against businesspeople who had confronted the state Customs Service. In this case, as in the case of member of parliament Khachatur Sukiassian, whose businesses were audited and heavily penalized after he announced his support for Mr. Ter-Petrossian, there were elements of corruption, Mr. Hovhannesian said. But punishment came only when their activities "became politically sensitive."

An official openly violates the rules and the laws and his or her violations are overlooked, he said, because that makes officials more manageable. "And only when they try to come out of this environment of manageability" are the violations acted on. "This practice must come to an end. You messed up, you must be held accountable: you're loyal, you're disloyal, that should not matter," he said.

Independence and justice

How does he hope to reach this point? "The solution is very simple, and at the same time, very difficult. Very simple because I can see it. Difficult because making it happen will create certain tensions. One of our slogans, and the most important, is ‘guaranteed changes in a politically stable environment.' All these solutions must avoid bringing about upheaval."

His first step, Mr. Hovhannesian said, would be to change the way elections are carried out in Armenia.

"The strong, who are able to circumvent the principles and rules of justice and apply pressure on the judge, the police chief, the tax inspector, the customs agent: Where does their power lie?" Mr. Hovhannesian asked. It lies, he said, in the fact that the authorities need them in order to win elections. "'You must bring me votes; I don't care how,' they are told. ‘If you want, buy them; if you want use your powers of persuasion. You are necessary to me for this purpose. And in return for that, I will turn a blind eye to certain deficiencies in your carrying out of your tax obligations, and in general in your relations with the law. I will be more tolerant toward you. You will be more equal than the others, as Orwell would have it.' These are the relations."

As president, Mr. Hovhannesian said he would invite "the strong" and say, "Guys, ‘there shall not an hair of your head perish,' but henceforth . . . you will go pay all your taxes, you will provide all the services prescribed by law, you will not interfere with the ship of state, the court process, etc. You will live like everyone; no one will touch your wealth: go enjoy it. But I owe you nothing because I was not elected thanks to your intervention; I was elected by the people."

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