Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenians in Georgia Want Secure Residence Rights

Many hold foreign passports, and recent changes in the law make them feel like strangers in their own land.
By Arshaluis Mghdesyan
  • Akhaltsikhe is the main town of Samtskhe-Javakheti, a region of Georgia with a substantial Armenian population. (Photo: Maia Ivelashvili)
    Akhaltsikhe is the main town of Samtskhe-Javakheti, a region of Georgia with a substantial Armenian population. (Photo: Maia Ivelashvili)

Members of Georgia’s substantial Armenian minority face uncertain times due to new rules that treat them like foreign nationals if they have taken out dual citizenship in the past.

The Georgian authorities say they are working to fix the problem and have delayed immigration law changes from January 1 to July 1.

The 2002 census counted 250,000 ethnic Armenians living in Georgia, mainly in the southern Samtskhe-Javakheti region. In recent years, they have often acquired second passports from Armenia or Russia to make it easier to travel and work abroad.

Georgia and Russia have had a poor relationship over many years, made worse by a brief war in 2008. Georgian nationals need visas to enter Russia, whereas people from Armenia do not.

There is a catch, however. Dual nationality is banned in Georgia, and the authorities automatically remove citizenship rights from anyone who acquires a second passport. This rule has been in place for many years, but it started being applied more rigorously last year, after Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the European Union and committed itself to tighter migration controls.

Georgia amended its immigration law to comply with the agreement, and this meant that citizens of Russia and Armenia were subject to new visa requirements. Foreign national or stateless persons can now stay in Georgia for a total of 90 days within any six-month period, after which they must obtain a visa or leave.

This regulation is now being applied to Georgian-born Armenians who have been stripped of their citizenship because they hold second passports.

“We have our homes and families here, and we took out Armenian or Russian citizenship so that we would be able to go and earn money in Russia,” said Artak, who lives in the Ninotsminda district of Samtskhe-Javakheti. “Now we’re strangers in our own land.”

Recognising the problem, the Georgian authorities have started issuing residence permits to people like Artak. The justice ministry says it has given out about 1,000 permits and is reviewing a similar number of applications.

In Samtse-Javakheti, there are complaints that the process is going too slowly, and that some applications have been turned down for no good reason.

Artak told IWPR that he put in his application five months ago.

“It’s taking quite a long time just to issue residence permits,” he said.

Other say they were never aware of the dual nationality ban until it hit them.

“We weren’t informed of it,” said Suren, who lives in the regional centre Akhalkalaki. “We had to feed our families somehow, after all, since you need Armenian citizenship to travel visa-free to Russia for work. There’s no work in Georgia, and it’s hard to get into Russia on a Georgian passport. No one told us that if we acquired Armenian citizenship, we might be deprived of our Georgian passports.”

Shirak Torosyan is a member of parliament in Armenia who takes a special interest in these cases as he chairs Javakhk,  an association for the diaspora in Georgia.

He says he understands that Georgia had to adjust its immigration policy to match the EU, but points out how difficult this is for ethnic Armenians who took out second passports in the past.

“For Georgian Armenians, the motive for getting Armenia citizenship was freedom of movement,” he said. “But… according to Georgian law, anyone who becomes a national of another state is automatically stripped of Georgian citizenship.”

The foreigners affected by last year’s immigration law changes also include Armenians in cross-border marriages.

“My daughter-in-law is an Armenian citizen who came to live in Georgia when she got married,” said Sarkis, from the village of Zhdanovka, close to Georgia’s southern border with Armenia. “She never switched nationality and now faces the dilemma of whether to do so quickly, or to leave the country for 90 days after every three-month stay here.”

Campaigners in Samtskhe-Javakheti have lobbied for the rules to be relaxed, as have Armenian diplomats in Tbilisi.

The speaker of Georgia’s parliament, David Usupashvili, discussed the matter when he visited Yerevan in February. He had met Armenian community figures in Tbilisi the previous month. Arnold Stepanyan, head of the NGO Multiethnic Georgia, was at that meeting and said Usupashvili acknowledged there was a problem.

The Georgian authorities appear to be responding, for example by changing the 2014 to ease the visa and residence requirements for anyone who owns property in the country.

Artak Gabrielyan, coordinator of an umbrella group of Armenian associations in Georgia, has yet to be convinced. He said discussions had taken place with Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani and parliamentarians on restoring Georgian citizenship to Armenians and granting them rights of residence.

“It’s true the minister said the issue is being resolved, but we haven’t seen it being comprehensively addressed so far,” he said.

Gabrielyan said it was a positive move that the new immigration rules had been postponed from January 1 to July 1, but he said officials on the grounds were already fining people for breaking them.

“It isn’t going that smoothly. For example, people who have been stripped of citizenship and have overstayed are being fined at customs in spite of the decision to postpone the date for bringing the immigration rules into force,” he said. “The customs officers say they haven’t received the new instruction.”

Arshaluis Mgdesyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.