Revised 6/26/06: Last Saturday I attended a panel discussion as part of a conference focusing on dual citizenship for Armenians in the diaspora. It was sponsored by the Armenian International Policy Research Group (AIPRG) and held at the American University of Armenia Business Center. The panel discussion focusing on the international experience with dual citizenship was the only one that I heard, although six main topics were covered altogether, including the legal aspects of dual citizenship, individual country experiences with regularizing diaspora-homeland relations, socioeconomic aspects, sociopolitical aspects and reparation, and a discussion and feedback for the existing proposals for dual citizenship.
Mostly case examples were given regarding how countries deal with the notion of dual citizenship while coping with large numbers of their individual peoples choosing to live beyond their home nation’s boundaries. Many examples were given regarding Israel, where all people of Jewish ancestry have a right to citizenship as well as gentiles after meeting certain requirements, Mexico from which thousands of citizens flee in order to find work and the chance of a better life to the north, and various European countries offering dual citizenship, such as Sweden. Other honorable mentions went to Lebanon, which does not allow its citizens to renounce their citizenship, although they can become citizens of other countries—my father as one example. The case scenario of people being born of Turkish ancestry in Germany was noted, where they apparently have no right to become citizens of Turkey according to Turkish law.
When discussion was opened to focus on Armenia, things took a different turn. One of the presenters, Richard Antaramian of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, made some controversial comments during his presentation that did not sit well with a few people in the audience, one of them being that clear distinctions should be recognized where Armenian diasporan groups are basically distinct from one another culturally, to the degree where interaction is difficult. For example, Armenians who left Lebanon to resettle in the US had difficulty relating to American-born Armenians, and also vice versa, mostly due to language as well as some cultural barriers. Similarly, immigrants to the US from Armenia had trouble mingling with both groups, having no affinity with either Middle Eastern or Armenian-American cultures. Although I agree with the fact that there tends to be a three-way polarization, as for instance I virtually knew no one in my age group who was from Armenia in Boston, although having transcended the boundary between Armenian Americans and Armenians from the Middle East, I cannot agree that the cultures are so dissimilar that a link cannot be formed. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcome between Armenians is the language barrier. There is a high level of stubbornness regarding who speaks the definitive Armenian language—whether Eastern or Western. Although both naturally share the same base there are notable differences in syntax as well as grammar. As one example, the fundamental verb that is at the essential core of communication in arguably all languages, “to be,” are completely different words, the Eastern Armenian being transliterated as “linel” and the Western, “elal.” That discrepancy in itself can give credence to hair-pulling debates, with no tangible outcome. The next level of persona reconciliation is trying to determine who the “real Armenian” is, taking into context cultural, educational, and especially, sociopolitical factors. Ancestral roots also play a factor in trying to establish who has a more legitimate claim to the “homeland” amongst Armenians.
At the end of the day, it makes no difference where you were born or what dialect of Armenian you speak, if you even know the language (which can be learned at anytime and should not be a precursor to whether you have a sense of “Armenianess.”) If you are able to formulate a link between yourself and the “homeland,” in this case let us say the Republic of Armenia since no two Armenians can necessarily agree as to what defines the “homeland” or “Armenia”—the physical nation versus the “transnational” nation, not to mention the dream “united Armenia” nation—then you have a legitimate calling to repopulate the area where you generally came from. Mr. Antaramian made some good points during his discussion in particular, with clear, concise explanations, but I found fault in his notion that Western Armenians, rather Armenians who have ancestral roots in Western Armenia, now under the occupation of Turkey, have no connection to present-day Armenia. Geographically, he is correct; however, the base of Armenian culture is fundamentally the same, despite what side of Mount Ararat your ancestors were from. The inability for an Armenian American, for instance, to form a cultural bond with his or her ethnic counterparts living in or originally from the Republic of Armenia is a psychological one. Bonds between people are based on emotions and arguably, instincts. If those two factors are suppressed by an individual, only then can a connection fail to be developed with another. It is a question of overcoming personal complexes to transcend the cultural divide, which itself is not necessarily wide.
The entitlement of dual citizenship has been made out to be an extremely complex issue. In Armenia’s case the first hurdle that must be overcome is actually obtaining the permission from the government to simultaneously be a citizen of Armenia while being a national of another country. Then the individual’s country of primary citizenship would then need to grant its own permission in kind.
But the debate does not end there. The discussion over citizenship for foreign nationals naturally becomes subdivided into separate categories, since Armenians love to complicate matters by nature, always stretching the rubber band beyond the limit of its elasticity. It is necessary to determine what kind of citizenship to grant for each individual. Potential citizens fall into three categories: people born outside of Armenia, such as Armenian Genocide survivors or the ancestors of Genocide survivors living in the Armenian Diaspora, not to mention the ancestors of emigrants from Soviet Armenia; people born in Soviet or post-Soviet Armenia who emigrated and claimed citizenship in their host country; and people who are not classifiable under the first two categories.
One of the amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia, passed in November 2005, vaguely mentions the possibility of receiving dual citizenship. Article 31.1 states that “The rights and responsibilities of the persons having dual citizenship shall be defined by the law.” Two of three dual citizenship options have been proposed by the AIPRG--which is chiefly represented by officials from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, or Central Bank of Armenia for some reason--as possible solutions, with the third already in practice.
Special Residency Status (SRS) has been offered since 1994, “citizenship lite” if you will, which entitles the possessor to the basic entitlements a citizen of Armenia holds, such as the rights “to freedom of movement” (under Article 25 of the Armenian constitution), to do business, to reside, to participate in active socio-cultural life as well as civil society, and to own property. However, with this status residents are not allowed to vote nor hold public office, two points that may upset the politically ambitious at-large. A foreign national may not legally be the founder of an NGO or similar organization and cannot be a member of a political party in Armenia. Also, SRS holders cannot serve in the military. The visa, which I possess, looks exactly like an Armenian passport, but has a Special Residency Status mark stamped in blue ink on the first page and is valid for 10 years. Up until 2002, purportedly 5,000 such visas were issued since the option was made available several years ago. And according to the Consular Department at Armenia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an estimated 11,500 SRS visas have been issued to date, with some holders being non-Armenians doing business in the republic.
Affiliate Citizenship (AC), or “citizenship premium,” would allow an individual the right to vote after three years of living in the republic and hold public office (forget becoming president), without the obligation to serve in the military. This would apply, for example, to middle-aged or elderly Armenians living in the diaspora wishing to reside in the homeland, either permanently or semi-permanently, and who thus cannot serve in the military. The premium option can be granted “upon the applicant’s visit to Armenia,” which may mean immediately. The individual would be obliged to visit Armenia for a minimum of two weeks once every two years and pay a citizenship tax once a year. Additionally, the AC citizen would be required to pay taxes, if applicable. Children who are born of at least one AC parent may be entitled to receive the same type of citizenship. I should mention that the AC applicant would need to pass the “Armenian Ancestry Test” as well.
Finally, Full-Fledged Citizenship, or “citizenship deluxe,” immediately grants all privileges and responsibilities, including the immediate right to become a public servant, the opportunity to hold presidential office but only after 10 years of residency, and the obligation to serve in the military. The intricacies of the premium and deluxe variants are yet to be laid out for consideration and determination by Armenian law.
The one question I wanted to ask—I could not as others were too busy making personal statements or putting forward their own personal agendas rather than asking a legitimate question pertaining to the discussion—which no one else managed to think of was: What are the expectations of and for dual citizenship? In other words, what do non-dual citizenship holders seek to attain that they cannot otherwise, and what does the Armenian nation—in the context the Armenian republic—expect from those that elect Armenian citizenship as a second, but equal privilege of statehood? As one of the panel speakers and dear friend Asbed Kochikian explained to me privately, no one seems to want to address that question. Let us understand that, again, the SRS visa currently offered allows an individual to conduct business, own property, and live legally in Armenia, along with meeting respective obligations, such as paying taxes where applicable. These privileges have not really made a huge impact on the amount of commerce being conducted by Armenian diasporans in the homeland, as SRS visa holders are far and few between when considering that between 5-6 million Armenians reside outside Armenia. But what is the excuse for this?
As a SRS visa holder, I personally do not care about being refused the right to vote, as it should not hamper my intentions to make a life in the Armenian republic. And that should be said of anyone who is serious about participating actively in professional and social life, with the intention of playing a role in an ever-developing, democratic society. Residing in Armenia with special status can be a stepping stone towards reaching the ultimate desired goal of citizenship, should that option be made available in the near future. Thus, if one were serious enough about residing in Armenia as a citizen, he or she would not hesitate to subscribe to the rights of privilege being offered with residency status, but that clearly is not happening to the extent that it should. So what are we expecting from dual citizenship, what are Armenians seeking to attain that they already cannot, aside from voting rights and opportunities to hold a position in public office?
The reason why this question is not being posed may have to do with the simple fact that no one really knows the answer. A common consensus in the global Armenian community has yet to determine what defines the “Armenian nation,” who is entitled to be a representative of that nation, whether the nation is multifaceted or monolithic, and what distinguishes “homeland” from “nation.” There is too much to discuss for obtaining tangible answers, and the more the questions asked, the further away an Armenian is from finding reconciliation regarding his or her identity in the 21st century as well as seeking a rightful place in the ancestral homeland.
But the whole topic regarding dual citizenship is becoming more and more redundant. Despite the fact that people in Armenia are Armenian, and Armenians from the diaspora more or less know the same language (which in fact is not true, seeing that spoken Western and Eastern dialects have significantly obvious differences and thus pose serious communication problems), Armenia is a foreign country that is difficult to immediately understand for most if not all diasporans. The republic is a far cry from most Western nations in terms of socioeconomic development and an environment which most diasporans come to expect as being conducive. Arguably, Armenian citizens are psychologically distinct from Armenians born in the diaspora who are living in Western nations, with differing mentalities and even a system of logic. So basically, it does not make sense why someone would automatically become an Armenian citizen simply because he or she is of Armenian descent. If you do not understand the people, social culture, business practices, socio-political situation, and other factors of a country, why would you want to become a citizen of it?
The solution to socioeconomic disparity in Armenia and polarization of the populace is not for Armenian diasporans to become instantaneous citizens. The first answer is to simply live in Armenia and make a connection with its people. The next step, if possible, is for foreign nationals to make active strides in developing civil society. There are opportunities abound to implement revolutionary concepts (by Armenian standards) in all spheres, including education, proper representation by government officials, education, social welfare, environmental protection, and human rights. These extremely important issues need to be addressed, and the expertise of diasporans can be utilized to bring about real, progressive change in Armenia. Armenians cannot wait around for a democratic society to be built around them, whether they are from Armenia or the diaspora. All Armenians are responsible for rebuilding the Armenian state to the extent individually possible, regardless of citizenship status. Until an Armenian has begun living in Armenia and has started to take part in society, whether socially, culturally, or economically, he or she should not immediately consider dual citizenship, whenever the details regarding which have become law. One must first practically understand what becoming a citizen of Armenia means along with the respective obligations. It’s very simple.
Labels: Personal Experiences, Thoughts and Musings