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Georgia's Armenians in Voting Row
Akhaltsikhe is the main town of Samtskhe-Javakheti, a region of Georgia with a substantial population of ethnic Armenians. (Photo: Maia Ivelashvili)
Armenian nationals living in Georgia will not be able to vote in their own country’s parliamentary election on May 6 following a decision to restrict polling rights to diplomats.
The decision was announced by the Armenian embassy in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, where expatriates and dual passport-holders would have gone to vote.
There are 350,000 and 400,000 ethnic Armenians living in Georgia, mainly in the southern Samtskhe-Javakheti region. It is unclear how many of them hold Armenian as well as Georgian passports. They do not advertise the fact since in most cases, it involves breaking the law.
Nonetheless, some Armenians in Samtskhe-Javakheti are furious at being deprived of a chance to vote on May 6.
“I don’t know how exactly many people intended to take part in the election, but almost all my friends who have Armenian citizenship were planning to go to Tbilisi on May 6,” Sergei Finadyan, who lives in the region’s main town of Akhaltsikhe, said. “Restricting the rights of Armenian nationals living in Georgia is a bad decision. Thanks to television, the internet and our personal contacts, we have managed to form views on what’s happening in Armenia and we were prepared to support candidates.”
Most of those who took out Armenian citizenship did so for a specific reason – to be able to work in Russia. Tbilisi and Moscow have had no diplomatic relations since they fought a brief war in 2008, and all Georgian nationals need visas to enter Russia.
Georgian law states that citizens can only hold dual nationality under exceptional circumstances, and this requires presidential approval.
“Not that many ethnic Armenians have dual citizenship in Georgia – by legal means, in particular,” Arnold Stepanyan, head of the non-government group Multinational Georgia, said. “Those who do hold an unofficial second citizenship will do everything they can to hide the fact.”
Mari Mikoyan, an ethnic minorities expert with the office of the Public Defender, Armenia’s ombudsman, said that based on figures supplied by the embassy in Tbilisi, “There are up to 1,000 Armenian citizens living in Georgia with dual citizenship. That doesn’t include Armenian nationals who are in Georgia temporarily, for whatever reason.”
Lasha Chkadua, governor of Samtskhe-Javakheti region, confirmed that dual nationality was largely a hidden affair, making it hard to judge how many people might be missing out on their right to vote in Armenian polls.
“There are no official statistics for the number of Armenian nationals living in Georgia. Most of those who took out Armenian citizenship did not renounce Georgian nationality, so it’s difficult to give a clear answer to this question,” he said.
Many of Georgia’s ethnic Armenians live double lives. From spring to autumn, substantial numbers – typically young men – go off to either Russia or Armenia to earn money, and then return to live with their families in Georgia over the winter.
“Every year I spend a few months living with my relatives in Tbilisi,” Ruzanna, a 27-year-old Armenian from Tbilisi, said. “It turns out I won’t be able to vote in the election. I’m a citizen of Armenia and I spend most of my time living in Yerevan, so why should I lose my right to vote?”
Experts doubt that votes cast by people living in Georgia will have much impact on the outcome of the poll. But Armenian passport holders said that was no reason to deny them the vote.
“Every vote is important and needed in a parliamentary election, especially in a small country like Armenia,” Finadyan said. “If you compare the number of Armenians living in other countries with the number resident in Armenia, it is a lot bigger. I think they need to take part in elections.”
Maia Ivelashvili is director of the regional TV company Channel 9 in Georgia.
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