By Nane Atshemian
Ever since she moved to Armenia from Iran with her family last year Annette has come to enjoy things that are taken for granted or not noticed by many local people. She sums them up with a single word: freedom.
“For example, here I can go to any place without having to worry about something, without fear and without stress,” explains the 19-year-old ethnic Armenian citizen of Iran. “Things are a bit different in Iran. You feel badly when you walk among Iranians. You are just not at ease.”
“There you always fear that an officer [from Islamic police] will stop you and ask why you did this or that,” she says.
Annette is one of hundreds and perhaps thousands of Iranian Armenians that have settled in Armenia over the past decade. The repatriation, which has visibly gained momentum in the last few years, is highly unusual for a country that has seen an exodus of hundreds of thousands of its citizens unable to cope with post-Soviet economic hardship. Also bucking the trend, though in smaller numbers, are ethnic Armenians from Syria, Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East.
An estimated 200,000 Armenians forms Iran’s main Christian minority. Most of them live in the capital Tehran and are the descendants of Armenians that were forcibly resettled in Iran by Shah Abbas in the 16th century.
A slow but steady improvement of the economic situation and living conditions in Armenia leads a growing number of them to wonder if it is about time they returned to their historical homeland. For young people like Annette repatriation also represents a welcome escape from the Islamic Republic’s strict code of behavior to a more liberal and laid-back environment. “What attracts us here is freedom,” he says.
It is estimated that as many 900 young Iranian Armenians currently study at various universities in Yerevan. Sero, an Iranian national who has lived in Armenia for the last ten years, believes that they should not return to Iran upon graduation.
“You can not develop professionally and achieve a lot in Iran if you are not a Muslim,” he said. “For them, religious affiliation is what matters the most. When it comes to choosing between an Armenian and a Persian, they usually prefer the latter. But they are otherwise friendly toward Armenians.”
Sero may have moved to Armenia for good but he is still an Iranian citizen like many of the fellow repatriates. Armenia’s constitution bans dual citizenship and Iranian Armenians say they do not want to change their citizenship because that would lose them their businesses and property in Iran. Many of them have yet to find a stable source of income in Armenia and live off those assets.
For them, introduction of dual citizenship, which is envisaged by President Robert Kocharian’s constitutional reform, would be the optimal solution. “The issue of citizenship should be resolved because I am considered an Armenian in Iran and a Persian here,” complains Artin, a first-year student at the French University in Yerevan.
Artin and his family immigrated to the country several months ago from the Iranian town of Nor Jugha which is home to some 7,000 Armenians. He knows a dozen other Jugha families that have repatriated recently. Artin says he and his relatives find the life among their kinsmen more exciting even though it was easier for them to earn a living in Iran.
But such enthusiasm is not always shared and understood by residents of Armenia. “You come to your homeland in a very enthusiastic mood, but the locals are not quite enthusiastic about your repatriation,” says Artin. “I am seen by some as a tourist, at best.”
Iranian Armenians also complain about what they see as a lack of politesse among the local people. A more serious problem privately cited by them relates to rule of law which they feels leaves much to be desired. Few of the locals, equally affected by the problem, would disagree.