In search of checks and balances
25 June 2020

Armenia and Georgia this week pushed through with constitutional changes. Questions on checks and balances remain at the heart of the governance debate in both countries.

It has been another roller coaster week for Armenian politics. Despite the fact that the country is still gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, and under a state of emergency, the political stand-off between the government of prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and opposition forces continued unabated.

The government suffered two serious setbacks as a result of court decisions this week. Former President Robert Kocharian was released from preventive detention by court order after paying a bail of 2 billion AMD (equivalent to around 4 million USD). He is currently on trial for charges of overthrowing the constitutional order for his role in the suppression of peaceful demonstrations following the presidential elections in 2008. A day later, another court, rejected a petition from the prosecutor's office to arrest the leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party, Gagik Tsarukyan who is accused of election fraud. The Armenian parliament had earlier lifted his parliamentary immunity and authorised his arrest.

The government remains locked in a dispute with the Judiciary regarding judicial reforms and appointments. On Tuesday the government pushed through constitutional amendments that allows for the removal of judges of the constitutional court who have served more than twelve years, and also opens the way for a change of the president of the court. The government has made it clear it was pushing ahead with the reforms despite accusations that its acts were a power grab at the expense of the independence of the judiciary.

In Georgia parliament has also approved in the first and second readings long debated constitutional changes that satisfy demands by opposition and civil society groups for changes in the way parliament is elected. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in Georgia in October. But the two main opposition parties, National Movement and European Georgia, boycotted the parliaments proceedings, demanding the release of an opposition leader, Giorgi Rurua, currently in prison.

The changes are part of a deal, brokered by a number of Tbilisi based western diplomats that changes the way parliament is elected, reducing the number of majoritarian seats down to 30 and fixing the election threshold at 1 % of votes. The changes will also ensure that no party that secures less than 40 % of votes could claim a majority of seats in the Parliament, and therefore, from forming the government on its own.

Controversy in Georgia over the composition of the judiciary has been a common feature for the last three decades, and despite many attempts at reforms the topic remains contentious and caught in partisan politics.

In both countries, the issue of checks and balances has been a long standing problem and judicial reform remains in many respects as elusive as ever.