Thousands of Syrians of Armenian descent, who have taken refuge in Armenia and become its citizens recently, will be able to vote this month in a relatively competitive election for the first time in their lives.
The newly naturalized Armenian citizens were born and raised in an autocratic country where political dissent has been suppressed relentlessly and no genuine opposition groups have been allowed to operate legally for decades. They can now choose between a president of the republic and his political opponents freely campaigning and criticizing the ruling regime. That should be quite a novelty for them, even considering Armenia’s notorious culture of electoral fraud.
According to authorities in Yerevan, around 3,000 ethnic Armenians from Syria were granted Armenian citizenship, without losing their original nationality, last year alone. Most of them are believed to be among over 6,000 Syrian Armenians that have fled to their ancestral homeland since the outbreak of the bloody conflict in Syria two years ago. Just like other Armenian nationals, they are eligible to vote in the presidential election scheduled for February 18.
Tamara Yeranosian, a woman from Aleppo, moved to Armenia with her husband and children just a few months ago. They have rented an apartment in Yerevan since then. “Since I am a citizen of Armenia I want to take part in the election,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
But while Yeranosian is eager to cast her first ballot as an Armenian citizen, she does not know in what polling station she can exercise her constitutional right and what she needs to do before election day. “When the apartment owner visits us later this month to get the rent I will ask him where I should vote,” she said.
Under Armenian law, citizens are to cast ballots in electoral precincts encompassing their place of residence, which is certified by police or local authorities in the form of a registration. Such registration automatically entails their inclusion on the national voter rolls. Most Syrian Armenians do not have it because of not owning houses or apartments in Armenia.
According to Hovannes Kocharian, head of the Armenian police Department on Passports and Visas, the lack of residence registration is not an obstacle to their participation in the presidential vote. All they have to do is to apply to relevant territorial divisions of the department and have their names added to “supplementary” voter lists within three days, he said. Detailed information about this procedure is available on the police websites (police.am, passportvisa.am), added the official.
“They need to realize that there is no special procedure for their voting,” Kocharian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “The Electoral Code does not differentiate between dual citizens and other citizens. It only differentiates between registered and non-registered citizens.”
Another problem cited by Syrian Armenians is a lack of awareness of the election candidates. Tamara Yeranosian admitted that she does not even know all contenders.
Thomas Baghdoyan, another Syrian Armenian, also seemed undecided, saying that he is not closely following Armenian politics. “If I go [to a polling station] I will think about whom to vote for,” he said. “What I care about is that the person at the helm makes sure that not only his child but also other children, even those in remote Armenian villages, live well.”
So far neither incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian nor any of his seven challengers has tried to specifically court the Syrian Armenian electorate in his campaign speeches. One of the opposition candidates, Raffi Hovannisian, is himself a naturalized citizen, having relocated from the United States to Armenia in 1990. Hovannisian had to wait for his Armenian passport for over a decade.
Quite a few Syrian Armenians might have voted for a candidate of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), an opposition party with an influential branch in Syria. But Dashnaktsutyun is effectively boycotting the upcoming election, saying that it will not be democratic.