Armenia Mulls Citizenship Law Changes

New legislation could dramatically increase number of Armenian citizens.

Armenia Mulls Citizenship Law Changes

New legislation could dramatically increase number of Armenian citizens.

A new law granting the right of dual citizenship in Armenia has come under fire from critics who say they are worried it is open to abuse.

Citizenship in Armenia is a major issue because twice as many Armenians live outside the country as inside it. The republic’s population is officially three million people, while more than twice that number live elsewhere. There are large diaspora communities in United States, France, Lebanon and elsewhere, mainly descendants of the 1915 genocide in the Ottoman Empire. The largest community is in Russia, formed during the Soviet Union and by large-scale migration there since 1991.

President Robert Kocharian made a law on dual citizenship one of his first pledges, before he first took office in 1998. However, Armenia’s 1995 constitution explicitly ruled out the possibility of dual citizenship and it was not until 2005 that a referendum was held that approved constitutional amendments and allowed for a new law to be adopted.

This week, parliament has been debating amendments to Armenia’s citizenship law, which will allow under certain conditions for the first time citizens of other countries to hold Armenian citizenship as well. The assembly will vote on the draft law on February 26.

The most passionate support for the change has come from the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party, which has a strong base outside Armenia. One of the Dashnak leaders, Hrant Margarian, said dual citizenship was the first step towards uniting the Armenian people.

Dashnaktsutiun parliamentary leader Hrair Karapetian said it was important from a moral point of view to accept the principle of dual citizenship. “Historical justice will be restored regarding the Armenians, who lost their motherland against their will,” he said.

Karapetian also argued that dual citizenship would help attract more diaspora money to Armenia. He said that up to now the diaspora’s economic potential has not been fully used, because Armenians living abroad feel offended, thinking that in Armenia they are seen as “milk cows” who provide investments but get nothing in return.

The draft law allows citizens of other countries to take up Armenian citizenship but under certain conditions. If they are male, they are eligible for military service in Armenia, unless they have already done in another country.

In parliament, Justice Minister David Harutiunian said that foreigners seeking to obtain Armenian citizenship would be stripped of their right to diplomatic protection on Armenian territory, while businessmen who were dual nationals would no longer benefit from the privileges enjoyed by foreign investors.

Additionally, a dual citizen of Armenia will enjoy the right to vote if they are on Armenian territory, but cannot be a candidate for the presidency or parliament.

Critics of the bill have focused their concerns on the possibility that a large number of foreigners could suddenly acquire the right to vote in Armenia, saying this could open up elections to abuse.

Several leading opposition politicians have said they will only support the new measures if dual citizens are not given the right to vote.

Armenia is due to hold parliamentary elections in May this year and presidential elections next year.

Suren Sureniants of the opposition Republic party said that including foreign Armenians in voter registers would make it easier to manipulate electoral lists, which he said already contain the names of thousands of dead people.

Sureniants called the plans “absolutely unacceptable both politically and morally, and even from the viewpoint of the country’s national interests”. “People from countries with opposing interests [to ours] could become dual nationals and make Armenia the setting for the collision of these interests,” he told IWPR.

Prime Minister Andranik Margarian rejected the accusations, saying that the number of dual citizens who would actually vote would be small.

Two American Armenians told IWPR that they were hurt by the implication that dual citizens could pose a threat to their historic homeland.

Nairi Balanian from Philadelphia told IWPR that she would abide by all citizenship regulations and her son would be ready to serve in the army. “I will travel to Armenia to vote, I will pay taxes for Armenia,” she said.

Asbet Balanian, also from Philadelphia, said, “I find the official position of the Armenian Republic very offensive when they classify overseas Armenians as ‘odar’ (“foreigner” in Armenian). I am no less Armenian than an Armenian who was born in Armenia. I am even better than many Armenians who migrated from Armenia, to countries of the world and lost their Armenian identity and became real odars.”

Balanian said that diaspora Armenians should have analogous rights to Jews, who have the right to go and settle in Israel and receive citizenship - so long as they paid taxes and obeyed the laws of the country.

To the charge that the new law would put the fate of Armenia in the hands of foreigners, Margarian countered that Armenians abroad already wielded strong influence over the economy of the country. “If we think that way, we should pull down an iron curtain and not allow our compatriots to work in Armenia,” he said.

Rita Karapetian is a correspondent with Noyan Topan news agency. IWPR Armenia editor Seda Muradyan also contributed to this article.

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