This study focuses on the notion of citizenship in postsocialist Armenia. Central to the research is an investigation of the process of naturalisation and integration of refugees in Armenia, and the intention is to examine social, political and economic aspects of the multilateral ‘state-refugee’ relationship in this particular context.The ethnic Armenian refugees at the focus of this study fled from Azerbaijan between 1988 and 1992 during the violent conflict over the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. They were welcomed by the Armenian state and the local population as ethnic kin, members of the nation who had become victims of the conflict over the unification of disputed Armenian lands. The dominant discourse associates the displacement of refugees with the course of Armenian history of occupation, displacement and genocide.
Military actions were stopped in May 1994 as a cease-fire agreement was reached between Armenia and Azerbaijan, however, the political conflict has not yet been resolved. Given that refugees would not be able to return to their former homes, Armenian authorities adopted policies aimed at their integration and naturalisation. Since their arrival, the refugees in Armenia have been granted rights more or less equal to those of citizens of Armenia. Moreover, a law was passed in 1995 according to which the refugees were able to obtain Armenian citizenship if they so desired. Later, in 2000, a further new law guaranteed refugees the option to take ownership of the accommodation provided to them.
Despite the assistance of the state and the local population, the refugees faced difficulties in the process of integration, including economic and cultural obstacles. Most found themselves in a state of acute poverty. This was true for the majority of the whole Armenian population during that time as the country fell into deep economic crisis. However, the situation was even more difficult for the refugees since they had lost their social networks and social niches (social capital), property and savings. They also faced the challenge of finding formal employment in Armenia, a challenge exacerbated by the high rate of unemployment and low competency in literary Armenian. This was accompanied by a language policy that aimed to exclude Russian from official use in the public sphere and enforced Armenian as the only state language. Hence, refugees’ poor knowledge of the Armenian language resulted in difficulties in their cultural integration into the post-Soviet Armenian society.
A significant number of refugees (approximately 65 000-70 000 according to data from 2005) became Armenian citizens. In 2004 the official web page of UNHCR referred to the process of voluntary naturalisation of refugees in Armenia as “one of the largest naturalizations … in recent decades”. However, according to available data, in 2005, 240 000 people were still registered as refugees in Armenia. This fact demands the attention of the anthropologist.
The focus on the issue of naturalisation brings significant potential for an understanding of how certain population groups negotiate their status with the state and thus form new notions of belonging in Armenia. Refugees have experienced all facets of the postsocialist transformation, perhaps even more acutely than other groups. These facets include the formation of independent states accompanied by economic crisis and withdrawal of these newly independent states from social security obligations towards citizens, the establishment of certain borders, significant displacement of people on political grounds, extensive labour emigration, changes in passport regimes, etc.
The refugees faced the establishment of new borders separating them from their homeland in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan at a time when Azerbaijan and Armenia were becoming independent states and adversaries in a violent conflict. Moreover, refugees were very much dependent on the support of the Armenian state, and the insufficiency of state assistance due to the economic crisis (in which the country found itself after dissolution of the USSR) had a deep impact on their attitude toward it. Labour migration became one of the strategies of survival for many. On the other hand the refugees, in contrast to the local population, were not automatically attached to the state, and had alternatives. These choices, in turn, allowed them to become agents in constructing new notions of belonging.
One of the purposes of this research is to look at the reasons as to whether, why and how the refugees make choices over their formal status, and what that formal status means to them. More specific questions include: What advantages and disadvantages do refugee or citizen status have for individuals in Armenia? Are there prospects for economic or legal benefits resulting from refugee status, such as receiving compensations and privileges, or having access to private property from Armenian state? Is it only for political and economic reasons that a number of refugees still preserve their status? Are cultural factors such as language constraints or refugee group identity significant? If yes, for which groups and kinds of refugees? Are refugees more active politically; are they more successful in some ways, given their special status, or on the contrary, are they more vulnerable when compared to other local groups?
Certainly, refugees are not the only agents in this process and their naturalisation is largely determined by economic and political conditions, state policies and their social and cultural environment. This research will consider the role of different actors in the process of refugees’ naturalisation, such as the state, international organisations and other social actors.