BY VARANT MEGUERDITCHIAN
An initiative introduced by the Armenian government to stop the reduction in numbers of its citizenry was the law of dual citizenship. The law which came into effect in 2008 ensured that while large numbers of Armenians continued to leave the country in search of a better life, they did not need to relinquish their Armenian citizenship in order to attain a new nationality and passport. At the same time the law allowed those Armenians whose forebears had escaped the Armenian Genocide and made a new life in a foreign land to become Armenian citizens while retaining the passports of their host country.
My motivation to attain Armenian citizenship is driven by my simple right to be a citizen of the nation-state of Armenia. It can best be explained through my grandfather’s story.
Aharon Meguerditchian was born in the town of Hasanbey near the city of Adana on what is today the southern Mediterranean coast of Turkey. At the age of seven his family and the families of his friends, were rounded up in the town centre by soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. That’s where Aharon’s father, Hovsep, was separated from his family. Along with all the other men of the town, his father’s hands were tied behind his back and his beard set alight as Aharon and his younger brother Manassee, just five, watched on. Aharon, Manassee and their mother, Persape, were instructed to join the caravan of women, children and the elderly in forced marches further south. A few hours into the march, Aharon was told to run as fast and as far as he could with Manassee. The instruction this time did not come from the soldiers; it came from the familiar, loving voice of his mother. Aharon and Manassee did just that: They ran as fast as they could, over the ridge and beyond, without looking back or turning around, until they were alone, until they were ‘safe’.
In a matter of hours, Aharon was no longer a child; he was Manassee’s protector. Luckily, Aharon and Manassee came across Danish missionaries, who placed them on a ship and sent them on their way to a new world. The next ten years Aharon and Manassee spent in an orphanage in Lebanon. Aharon’s journey took him from Adana to Beirut, Buenos Aires, Marseille, back to Beirut and eventually to Sydney where he passed away surrounded by family in 1985.
Despite his burning desire, Aharon never had the chance to be a contributing citizen of the Armenian state. The only ‘Armenian’ document he ever had was his Near East Relief ID provided by the orphanage. I, however, do have that opportunity. Being a citizen makes me no more Armenian but it is a right I choose to exercise and a responsibility I choose to accept.
It is not enough to simply be satisfied that there is now an independent Armenia. As descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, we have a responsibility to ensure that the Armenian nation state fulfils its purpose of serving the needs and protecting the rights of the Armenian people. Armenian citizenship provides us Diasporans the legal rights to have a say in the affairs of the Armenian state. Concerns surrounding state polices on health, education, social welfare, trade, infrastructure and foreign affairs can be more legitimately raised by citizens.
It also gives us the right to put our capabilities, skills and expertise to serve and represent Armenia as fully-fledged citizens of the state where and when required on the international stage.
This should be the purpose driving Diasporans to seek Armenian citizenship and it is disappointing that not more of us are choosing to exercise that right. It was recently reported that some 21,000 Armenians applied for Armenian citizenship in 2013. This represents just a small fraction of the Diaspora and clearly more of us need to be seeking and attaining Armenian citizenship.
But just as we have a responsibility to the Armenian state, the state has a responsibility to us.
The Diaspora Ministry of Armenia website still notes that “the dual citizenship institute is a novelty in Armenia and, as every mechanism it requires more improvement, mitigation and simplification”. The passage continues “This was not intended to cause any trouble for anyone”.
A welcome acknowledgement, but six years after the dual citizenship law came into effect, merely recognizing the cumbersome nature of the process is simply not good enough. With acknowledgement comes responsibility.
My journey toward seeking Armenian citizenship was somewhat challenging. It required multiple back and forth visits to a number of Armenian Ministerial and Departmental offices including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Passports and Visas. On one of those visits I was even instructed to attain verification of my personal documents from the Armenian Embassy in Australia. The staffer was seemingly unaware that there is no Armenian diplomatic representation in Australia. Nonetheless, my application was finally submitted in July 2013 and I expect to attain my Armenian passport during my next visit to Armenia this year.
There are an estimated ten million people who identify as Armenian across the world while just over three million of these hold Armenian citizenship. Armenia must streamline the process of citizenship and actively recruit individuals. It must do so to encourage these people to contribute to the development of Armenian society and nation building from the sciences to the arts, sports and the political arena. It must do so in the interests of national security and prosperity.
After all, a nation state of ten million contributing citizens is much more influential than a state of just three million.
Varant Meguerditchian is the former executive director and president of the Armenian National Committee (ANC) of Australia. He currently works as a government relations professional in Sydney. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in politics and business administration and is currently completing his second master’s degree in international relations.