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Armenia: Dual Citizenship Debate

Is a proposed relaxation of citizenship laws a benefit or a danger for Armenia?
By Tigran Avetisian

With parliament soon likely to remove the clause from the Armenian constitution banning dual citizenship, people here are debating what its introduction would mean for the country and the millions of Armenians worldwide.


The introduction of dual citizenship could potentially lead to a radical change in the relationship between the Armenian state and the millions of Armenians who live outside it, from Georgia and Russia to the USA and Uruguay.


On different calculations, the official population of Armenia is no more than three million, while between seven and ten million Armenians live elsewhere in the world.


The issue of what sort of status diaspora Armenians should be given has divided the country since it regained independence in 1991. The constitution of 1995 explicitly outlawed the idea of dual citizenship but the administration of Robert Kocharian, president since 1998, is much warmer towards the concept.


Supporters of dual citizenship argue that its introduction would enable the Armenian diaspora to render assistance more effectively, increase foreign investment into the country and in bring expatriate Armenians psychologically closer to their historical motherland.


Madlen Minasian, US citizen and director of communications for the Kafeschian charity, said that dual citizenship would inspire many diaspora Armenians like herself, who want to pay back a “debt to the motherland”.


Minasian is not worried about the technical details of the arrangement, saying “As for military service it is a fairly broad concept. This issue should be sorted out by the authorities. People can pay their debt to the homeland by working in the social or other spheres.


“The main thing in passing a law on dual citizenship is the inspiration factor. Thanks to this, the majority of our compatriots living abroad will make a contribution to developing the motherland.”


The nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party, which is a member of the coalition presently in power in Armenia, is the strongest advocate of the plan.


Dashnaktsutiun is one of the traditional Armenian parties, which was established at the end of the nineteenth century outside Armenia and remained active in the diaspora throughout the period of Soviet rule. It was only able to start functioning again in 1991.


“The lifting of the prohibition on dual citizenship remains one of the most important issues today in the draft of constitutional changes,” Armen Rustamian, one of the leaders of Dashnaktsutiun, told IWPR.


Opponents of the idea say that it is fraught with unforeseen consequences and could surrender sovereignty to people in other states. Stepan Grigorian, spokesperson for Armat, a political science research centre founded by former officials in the Ter-Petrosian administration, warned, “Dual citizenship cannot be partial or half-and-half, as the present government insists. This makes no sense. Citizenship means having the right to vote and being elected and the danger of this, is that as a result, the government of Armenia could be influenced from abroad.”


Grigorian argued that by allowing dual citizenship, Armenia could endanger some parts of the Armenian diaspora, “In Georgia, for example, Armenians would come to be seen as a fifth column, as a potential factor of instability.”


The analyst also pointed out that dual citizenship was only possible where a bilateral agreement could be struck with another country. But this can be problematic.


For example, Russia, which has probably the largest Armenian population outside Armenia, allows dual citizenship, but President Vladimir Putin suspended its effect in 2001.


“This is a very typical example,” said Grigorian, “Russia and Turkmenistan have an agreement on dual citizenship, but it was quickly suspended when problems arose in areas such as military service, and the disclosure of and punishment for criminal offences.”


Tigran Torosian, pro-government deputy speaker of parliament, is one of the strongest supporters of the plans and says that Armenians should not be intimidated by them.


“Of course, this does not mean that an individual with dual citizenship should have all the same rights as a citizen living in the Republic of Armenia, particularly regarding the right to vote and the right to be elected,” he said. Precise definitions should be codified by additional changes to the constitution or by law, he added.


Political scientist, Vardan Pogosian, the deputy chair of the National Democratic Party, proposes a flexible arrangement that sets residence in Armenia as the primary criterion for receiving citizenship.


“Let the Armenian diaspora receive dual citizenship, but with regard to political rights, those who do not permanently reside in Armenia should be differentiated from those who do. For those who do decide to live here and make Armenia their home, it would be simply immoral to deprive them of their right to vote and be elected,” he said.


Pogosian said that this would have to be tightly controlled, “A large number of Armenians live abroad. And if around 10 million foreign Armenians were to receive full Armenian citizenship, then this would mean that special restrictions would need to be imposed during government elections. Eligibility to vote on the competence of the government would apply only to residents of Armenia.”


Legal expert Hrair Tovmasian said he doubted that diaspora Armenian businessmen would see their status change much under a change of law, as they felt well protected already in Armenia and the authorities tried to keep up good relations with them.


The exception, he said, is the right of property ownership, which does not extend to foreigners.


Analyst Stepan Grigorian finally pointed out that dual citizenship is a two-way process and will not work without reciprocal steps from other countries. In the Armenian case this could lead to renewed emigration, he warned.


“Even to suggest that we sign a dual citizenship agreement with some country, it must be understood that it should not be asymmetrical,” Grigorian said. “So, if a French citizen can become an Armenian citizen as well, then an Armenian citizen should be able to become a French citizen. Well, what do you think, in which direction would the flow of people start to go then?’


Tigran Avetisian is a journalist with Aravot newspaper in Yerevan.


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