Tuesday, August 14, 2007

An Interview with Vahan Hovhannesian

Dual Citizenship: An Interview with Vahan Hovhannesian
By Khatchig Mouradian
The Armenian Weekly
August 11, 2007

On February 26, the Armenian National assembly passed a law allowing dual citizenship. In this interview, conducted in Washington on April 23, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Vahan Hovhannissian discusses the importance of that law.
Khatchig Mouradian—My first question goes beyond the legalities of the dual citizenship law. In a sense, the dual citizenship law could bring the two divided wings of the Armenian nation together. What are your thoughts on this matter?

Vahan Hovhannisian—First, I must say that the passage of the dual citizenship law will be considered one of the greatest victories of the ARF in this term of the National Assembly. As you know, the law wasn’t passed easily. But at the end, it passed more or less the way we wanted it to. In the beginning, constitutional obstacles to dual citizenship were removed, and then the law itself was passed. Now the third act remains: the implementation of the law on the ground and the coordination of details. How do people apply? What documents will they need to present? How will the applications be processed?

You are right to point out that the law has many different layers. On the one hand, it has a huge moral significance. As we all know, the Armenian diaspora was not the result of emigration, it was the result of the genocide when people were forced to leave their homeland. Thus, if the homeland, though not complete, has been able to achieve independence, then it is forced to give all of its children the right to citizenship. In our opinion this law should have been passed as early as 1991, as soon as Armenia became independent. Due to various political reasons, that was not accomplished. But at least now we have been able to bring this process to its end, and now any Armenian who would like to receive Armenian citizenship can do so, thus gaining the rights of any citizen, not limited to voting.

Here I must emphasize that I hope the number of applications will be plentiful and the number of Armenian citizens will grow. In the international theater, a country with a population of three million and another country with a population of five million carry different weight. The dual citizenship law must strengthen Armenian’s position.

Aside from that, the introduction of dual citizenship in Armenia will encourage investments. It is one thing to make investments in Armenia out of a feeling of moral obligation toward the homeland. It is an entirely different thing to be a citizen and a full participant of the civic life of the nation, whether in politics, in the social sphere, or in other spheres.

In one word, the law will create new waves of Armenians heading toward Armenia. Thus, the law will have far-reaching positive results.

K.M.—Perhaps this was more widely felt in the past, but there are some in Armenia who say that the diaspora did not go through the difficult times that Armenians in Armenia had to endure in the last decade, and claim that this should be taken into consideration when thinking about dual citizenship. What do you think?

V.H.—Such thinking easily crumbles in the face of criticism, since a large section of the Armenian population did not go through those difficult days either, and did not participate in the war. The Armenian authorities back then shielded their sons from military service, had electricity and heating, and did not share the people’s suffering. Can we take away their citizenship because of this? I think this line of thinking is madness, especially since there is a price to pay for becoming a dual citizen of Armenia—that is, a dual citizen cannot run for the presidency or for a seat in the National Assembly. I think from the point of view of fairness, this law is perfect.

K.M.—Naturally the passing of this law was welcomed by the diaspora. The question in the minds of diaporan Armenians is when and how will this law be implemented? Can applications only be filed in Armenia or will embassies also be accepting them?

V.H.—We didn’t get to discuss the concrete steps to implement the law because the elections are upon us and naturally the Assembly is on a hiatus. But I think this will be one of the first issues discussed after the elections. A committee has already been established that is dealing with the details, including how one applies, what documents are needed, how applicants will have to prove their Armenian origin, etc. There are some points that need to be fine-tuned, and some time will be needed, but I think it is a matter of weeks and that it will be resolved quickly after the elections.

In reality, there are no obstacles for applying now. Meaning, just like before, any individual who wants Armenian citizenship must apply to the President of the Republic. It is natural, of course, that under the circumstances a new process for the applications must be created. It is also not a secret that the security services will need to review applications, as some will attempt to abuse the system.

K.M.—What are the expectations from those who will benefit from the dual citizenship law? What are their duties and what will they gain?

V.H.—As far as the Armenian government is concerned, dual citizens are first and foremost citizens of Armenia. Where their other citizenship was issued is of no interest to us. As such, they have the same duties toward the Republic as any Armenian citizen would. That includes serving in the military and other duties. Of course, when an individual is a citizen of Armenia and another country, we cannot allow him or her to become an Assembly member or President. But that doesn’t mean dual citizens will never be able to serve in those posts. After living in Armenia for 10 years, they may give up their other citizenship and receive full rights. There is one problem: How are people to pay taxes? There are international tax agreements and Armenia has signed such agreements with many countries. These will ensure that the individual doesn’t pay the same tax twice in two separate countries. And of course, those who have served in another army for 12 months will not have to complete compulsory military service in Armenia. Also, those who are past the age of 27 will not have to serve in the military, Dual citizens are also completely under the jurisdiction of the Armenian government. For example—and this is a rather bad example—if an individual commits a crime, the Armenian authorities will consider him as an Armenian citizen, and the individual won’t be able to claim, say, that he is a citizen of the U.S., or Syria, or France, and that he would like to be tried in those countries under their penal codes. As far as the authorities are concerned, a dual citizen of Armenia is a citizen of Armenia, and so if you were to commit a crime in Armenia, the Armenian authorities would prosecute you based on the Armenian penal code. The Armenian government’s approach to dual citizens is identical to the approach used by the United States. The U.S., too, recognizes dual citizenships, but treats all of its citizens, including its dual citizens, the same way. Armenia will do the same.

K.M.—In your view, what will the future bring and are there concerns for possible obstacles? Is it possible that the law will be transformed into an internal political tool?

V.H.—I don’t think that’s a concern, because in essence no one was opposed to the concept of dual citizenship. People’s hesitance had much more to do with voting rights—that is, there was the impression among many that diasporan Armenians, by becoming citizens of Armenia, were mostly going to vote for the ARF. This view, by the way, is far from the truth. I don’t think that kind of vote will be large enough to have any effect on today’s political landscape. On the other hand, if we really want the diaspora to be a political presence in our country, if we really want to create one nation in one state, and if we truly want to attract Western Armenians—the diaspora—into our political life, we must allow for their political preferences. So yes, all of those political parties that have come alive in Armenia over the last few years should start taking into consideration the interests of the diasporans, so they can gain their votes. This is a very normal process and there shouldn’t be any problems, especially since in the future the flow towards Armenia should be large. But I don’t think there will be enough applications in the next few months or enough citizenships granted that there will be a political imbalance in Armenia. I don’t think it will happen and I think the fears that it will are not grounded in reality.

K.M.—You said that this law would allow the Diaspora to inch closer toward Armenia. As for the opposite effect—how will it move Armenia closer to the diaspora?

V.H.—Here the issue is dual. If citizens of Armenia today were to gain citizenship in another country, they would not be immune from their obligations, such as serving in the Armenian army. This is one serious problem. The second problem is the issue of the Armenian population in Russia, who have close ties to Armenia, yet value their ties with Russia. We must work with the Russian authorities and come to some kind of agreement regarding the status of the Armenian population there, since it is the largest Armenian population outside of Armenia.

As for the rapprochement between Armenia and the diaspora, I think that’s going to take some time because the division between Western and Eastern Armenians, which was forcefully and artificially created by our enemies, was performed a long time ago. The division has been made. In that rapprochement between Eastern and Western Armenians, whole mentalities have to be reconciled with each other. And the issue is not just economic, it’s not about investing in Armenia or buying a house in Armenia. It is about Armenian grammatical rules, the literary language of Western Armenians and Eastern Armenians—which Armenian children in both Armenia and the Diaspora should start studying in equal amounts. These are very serious and far-reaching issues that need to be resolved. This rapprochement won’t be easy. For example, Armenia can’t just move a magic wand and pass a law forcing classical orthographic rules down peoples’ throats, because that means whole libraries will have to be corrected and a whole generation that doesn’t know the rules will become illiterate. Instead, this change requires long-winded efforts as well as a government plan. We have had a few Armenia-Diaspora summits to find solutions to these issues. Unfortunately, the solutions have not yet been found. The Armenia-Diaspora rapprochement, unfortunately, has not yet occurred.

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