Armenia's parliament approved a package of amendments February 26 that give millions of ethnic Armenians around the world the chance to obtain Armenian citizenship without abandoning their current nationality. The vote came after weeks of heated debate that exposed major differences on the issue within the country's leadership.
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party, which boasts the largest parliament faction, joined opposition parties in voicing serious misgivings about the proposed amendments. They particularly objected to a clause giving dual citizens a virtually unrestricted right to vote in Armenian elections. In the end, Republican Party lawmakers reluctantly voted for the government-drafted bill, apparently under strong pressure from President Robert Kocharian, who had pledged to introduce dual citizenship when he came to power in 1998. The idea has also been championed by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, also known as the Dashnak Party), another member of Kocharian's governing coalition. The nationalist party, which has many chapters and adherents in Armenian Diaspora communities, is the only parliamentary force that unconditionally backed the legislative package.
"Allowing dual citizenship means strengthening Armenia," said Hrayr Karapetian, an ARF leader, at a February 16 news briefing. "It means increasing our population [of 3 million,] reinforcing our army, spurring investments in our economy, and, in general, utilizing the potential of the entire Armenian nation for the benefit of Armenia."
Karapetian and other ARF leaders cite the example of Israel, which readily grants Israeli citizenship to Jews from around the world. Just like the non-Israeli Jews, the Diaspora Armenians, mainly living in the United States, Russia, Europe and the Middle East, greatly outnumber the population of their historical homeland. Estimates of their total number vary from 5 million to 6 million. Most of them are descendants of the survivors of the 1915 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The administration of Armenia's first post-Soviet president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, opposed the concept of dual citizenship, prohibiting it through an article of the country's post-Soviet constitution adopted in 1995. (The ban was repealed as part of constitutional amendments enacted by the Kocharian administration in a disputed November 2005 referendum.) Ter-Petrosian and his allies asserted that Armenia's national security and independence would be jeopardized if its citizens were allowed to have allegiance to other states. They were also believed to have feared that dual nationality would translate into a significant increase in the ARF electoral clout. At the time, the ARF was at loggerheads with Ter-Petrosian's administration.
The major opposition parties currently represented in parliament likewise see ulterior motives behind the ARF's strong support for the politically sensitive idea. They have demanded that a final decision on dual citizenship be postponed until after the May 2007 parliamentary elections and presidential ballot due early next year. Kocharian, however, is expected to sign the bill probably next month.
ARF leaders have vociferously denied any connection between the bill in question and the polls. In particular, they point to one of the amendments stipulating that voters would be able to vote in elections only within Armenia. This means that there will no longer be polling stations at Armenian diplomatic missions abroad.
Still, the Republican Party appeared to share the opposition's concerns; it insisted that residents of Armenia and its future citizens living abroad must not enjoy equal political rights. "The fate of the Republic of Armenia must be primarily decided by the people who are aware of and affected by its problems," Parliamentary Speaker Tigran Torosian, a leading member of the governing party, told fellow deputies on February 22.
Under an opposition-backed amendment proposed by the Republican Party, a Diaspora-based dual citizen can vote in an Armenian election only if they have lived in Armenia during at least one of the preceding five years. Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who presented the bill on behalf of the government, rejected the amendment as unconstitutional. The only restriction the government agreed to place on dual citizens is that they cannot run for president and parliament.
The final version of the bill says that such citizens shall otherwise have all the rights and obligations of regular Armenian nationals. The most significant of those obligations applies to men. They must report for military duty in case of a war or mass mobilization. Those dual citizens who are under 28 years old and have not served in the armed forces of their native countries for at least 12 months must complete a two-year military service in Armenia.
Whether many foreign nationals of Armenian descent are actually keen to get Armenian passports remains to be seen. They have for years been eligible for special 10-year residency permits that allow them to live, work and, unlike other foreigners, own land in Armenia. Quite a few of them already have such permits.
Alex Sardar, an Armenian-American who has lived in Yerevan for almost five years, welcomes the legalization of dual citizenship, saying that it will give Diaspora Armenians a "very specific and tangible connection to their homeland." Asked by EurasiaNet whether he himself will apply for Armenian citizenship, Sardar said, "If I were to speak emotionally, I would probably say yes. If I am speaking rationally, my answer would be that I have to think long and hard about that."
"I'm quite happy with my 10-year residency visa and don't need Armenian citizenship," said another Diaspora Armenian who moved to Armenia from the United Kingdom in the late 1990s. "Actually, I am afforded more rights here being foreign than I am being an Armenian citizen."
Having an Armenian passport should seem more attractive to hundreds and possibly thousands of ethnic Armenians that have repatriated in recent years from neighboring Iran and Arab states like Syria and Lebanon. But ultimately, it is natives of Armenia that might emerge as the main beneficiaries of dual citizenship. Hundreds of thousands of them emigrated to Russia and other countries following the economic slump of the early 1990s. Many of them have since become citizens of those countries without surrendering their Armenian passports. They will now not have to hide that from the Armenian authorities anymore.
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.