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Armenian Citizens Abroad Clamor For The Right To Vote

An Armenian election official applies a sample passport stamp designed to prevent multiple voting in elections. Some expatriates fear their identities will be used to commit election fraud.
No one knows for sure how many Armenian citizens are living abroad. But almost none of them will be able to vote in the country's February 18 presidential election.

Under the revised Electoral Code, only Armenians working in embassies and other government representations or those working for a few large companies, as well as members of their families, will be able to cast their ballots from outside the country.

The rest of the enormous amount of expatriated Armenian citizens will either have to return to Armenia to vote or sit out the poll entirely.

Of course, the far larger diaspora of ethnic Armenians -- many of whose families emigrated in the early 20th century or during the Soviet period and who are not now Armenian citizens -- has never been eligible to vote.

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Armen Zakarian is a 63-year-old realtor living in the Los Angeles area. He is a U.S. citizen of Armenian origin, but has been active on social media, calling attention to the disenfranchisement of Armenian citizens living outside the country.

"If someone restricted your right to vote, I think there would be a revolution in your country. It is the same in Armenia," Zakarian says. "We are trying to build a democratic society but the government, this regime, they prevent people who are temporarily out of Armenia to vote."

How Many Would Vote?

Armenian officials say the restriction is largely due to the enormous cost of having expatriates vote. But critics contend that the changes were made because Armenians abroad voted overwhelmingly in the past for opposition candidates. In addition, the critics say, the restrictions open the door to possible electoral fraud.

Officially, Armenia has about 2.5 million people on its voter lists. But precise figures on how many of them are living outside the country are hard to come by, says Linda Edgeworth, acting head of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems' (IFES) Yerevan office.

"There are approximately a million -- nobody knows for sure -- but a million Armenians [with Armenian passports] living abroad, which is more than [one-]third of the voter list," Edgeworth says.

The Armenian government says allowing expatriates to vote is too costly.
The Armenian government says allowing expatriates to vote is too costly.

Whatever the number, it is potentially a large bloc of voters, many of whom have lived abroad for years or even decades and who rarely, if ever, return to Armenia. Most of them live in Russia, the United States, France, and other countries in South America and the Middle East.

Moreover, Edgeworth says, their participation in past elections has been minimal -- just a few thousand cast ballots in general elections before the election law changes in 2007 that disenfranchised those citizens residing or traveling outside the country.

A Right To Vote?

But that is small comfort to people who feel like they have been deprived of their rights. Ed, who asked that his last name not be used in order to protect his relatives in Armenia, is a 42-year-old construction contractor and former Armenian military officer who has lived in the United States for eight years but retains his Armenian citizenship.

He charges that the Armenian government wants to keep Armenians abroad from voting because they are more independent and have absorbed the values of the countries where they live.

"There are many more living outside of the Republic of Armenia than in the Republic of Armenia. And they are living a much better social life than inside of the Republic of Armenia," Ed says. "Can you imagine if we had the rights and the possibilities to make changes?"

Peter Erben, a senior electoral adviser at IFES, says that expatriate voting is a difficult issue for many countries and that the right to vote from abroad is not generally considered a defining feature of democracy.

"The enfranchisement of the diasporas of various nations is not generally considered a binding electoral standard for nations because for some nations this represents a significant economic burden that they are not able to fulfill," Erben says. "For other nations, to perform a diaspora vote could in undue ways influence their local politics. So there is no absolute requirement for a democracy to include the diaspora in national votes."

IFES estimates that, depending on how voting abroad is done, the cost is five to 10 times more per voter than the cost of in-country voting. The Armenian government has cited the expense as the major reason for restricting the ability of Armenians to vote from abroad.

Erben adds that large populations of expatriate citizens can pressure officials in small countries like Armenia with unrealistic demands for service.

Opportunities For Fraud

Opposition politicians and activists, however, have also argued that the presence of a large number of people on the voting lists who will have no opportunity to actually vote creates a tempting potential for fraud.

IFES's Edgeworth admits that there is a danger of this, but says there has been little real evidence that such fraud has actually happened. She adds, however, that useful safeguards have not been put into place to prevent it.

"There have been proposals recently that have generated some interest of actually publishing copies of the lists so that people can inspect them to see who signed as someone who has voted and which people there are for which there is no signature," she says. "I suppose that public exposure of voter lists after the election would be quite helpful in exposing levels of fraud if they really existed."

For his part Ed, the Armenian construction contractor in the United States, claims he and his relatives have been registered as having voted in the past, and he believes it will happen again this time around.

"I'm pretty sure that during this election I am going to vote -- so-called. I am going to be in the Republic of Armenia virtually, and I am going to vote," he says. "Somebody will put my signature on those papers."

Heather Maher contributed to this report from Washington, and RFE/RL Armenian Service correspondent Armen Koloyan contributed from Prague