Special for the Armenian Weekly
On April 2, something unexpected happened in Armenia: The Constitutional Court came down with a verdict overturning a government-backed law.
In a 64-page ruling read by Court Chair Gagik Haroutyunyan, the administration’s mandatory privatized pension system was deemed unconstitutional. The court held that wages kept from workers as part of the reform must be returned and that the system must be brought in line with the court’s decision by no later than Sept. 30.
This was a rare moment in which the judicial branch issued a decision contrary to the wishes of the government (and its Western financial backers).
What followed was widespread caution and bewilderment among traditional analysts. Some suggested that the ruling was made on government orders. Others dismissed it as meaningless, maintaining that the regime would still end up doing as it pleased.
These pessimistic reactions are understandable, as the court has rarely ruled in opposition to the government and law enforcement bodies. Indeed, the common narrative is that the entire legal system in Armenia is so corrupt that it’s impossible to obtain a ruling against the authorities.
Viewed through this lens, it is only natural that observers wouldn’t know what to make of what was truly a significant grassroots victory on April 2.
For over six months, a growing movement of young activists and concerned citizens, under the “Dem Em” (I Am Against) banner, had been staging petition drives, teach-ins, labor strikes, and street protests against the government’s pension privatization. This popular civic initiative was flanked by all four main opposition parties, who challenged the law before the Constitutional Court.
This activism undoubtedly led to the government’s surprise defeat in the high court. The ruling even went on to reverberate in the upper echelons of the regime, with the prime minister (the most avid champion of the privatization) being forced to resign from his post a few weeks later.
But the battle over the pension system is nowhere near from over. The same autocratic approach to policy-making that introduced such an extreme, regressive reform continues to try to subdue the public and keep it out of decision-making.
Reports immediately began to surface of state employees being intimidated to not opt out of the government’s privatized pension system following the court’s decision. Those who dared exercise their constitutional rights were threatened with termination.
In fact, we have seen this form of pressure exerted from the very beginning of the reform. The human rights group Foundation Against the Violation of Law (FAVL) is currently defending 3 metro workers who were abruptly fired in February—after 15 years of service—for daring to present a petition against the (now unconstitutional) pension system to their superiors.
As a staff member at FAVL, I have been involved in the proceedings of the case from the onset. Throughout the first two hearings of the trial, the metro side has provided no documentation of violations or any written warnings to the workers regarding their supposed misconduct. After extensive questioning, even the judge in the case frustratingly concluded, “I do not understand what exactly the plaintiffs’ violations consist of.”
The attitude of the metro side in the trial is nothing short of arrogant. They seem to believe that they can do as they please with no regard for the law and no need to explain their actions to those they are affecting.
This is the same attitude on display in the National Assembly, where the ruling Republican Party just pushed through an amendment to the pension bill that aims to resuscitate what the Constitutional Court already shot down. Under the new law, state employees will be forced to give 5 percent of their wages for so-called “social payments.” This is nothing but a poorly guised replacement of the pension contributions under the privatization scheme.
Such is the stunning disregard for the Constitution and public opinion that those in power practice.
The only remedy for this state of affairs is a vigilant public organized and prepared to protect its rights. Citizens must be engaged and ready to exert popular pressure to ensure that the courts not only issue fair decisions, but actually enforce them.
Rather than dismiss these institutions as corrupt and hopeless, history teaches us that they work only when the people make them work. The April 2 decision and countless other recent victories show us that when fortified by grassroots mobilization, justice can prevail in the courtroom.
Thankfully, a new, independent generation of young Armenians is coming to the fore to meet this challenge. You can find them leafleting in public places, posting online, and packing the halls of the metro workers’ case. They are standing firm, waging their battle for social change both in the streets and the legal arena—proving that the rule of law is guaranteed in a society not through a piece of paper, but in the everyday actions of its citizenry.