BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
The Republic of Armenia plans to amend its constitution in order to create a new legislative upper house — a Senate — that would include representatives from the Diaspora, according to a January 30 announcement in Los Angeles by Hranush Hakobyan, Armenia’s Diaspora Minister.
This news spread like wildfire throughout the Armenian world, and the reaction was mixed. Pro-government circles welcomed the proposal with great enthusiasm, while opponents severely criticized it. In my view, both praise and criticism were premature, as the Minister’s announcement contained few details about the proposed Senate.
Interestingly, despite Minister Hakobyan’s declaration about President Sarkisian’s intent to establish a Senate, the President’s spokesman Armen Arzumanyan cautioned that this is one of many such proposals deserving of serious consideration. He went on to explain that amending the constitution is a complicated and long process. A week later, Parliament Chairman Hovik Abrahamyan further downplayed the Minister’s announcement stating that it will not be considered until after next year’s Parliamentary elections, given the legislative body’s crowded agenda.
At this early stage, one can only ask questions, because of the Minister’s assertion that there would be extensive consultations in Armenia and the Diaspora before any decision is taken on the structure and responsibilities of the proposed Senate.
Here are key questions that individuals, organizations, and government officials should consider, before deciding to amend Armenia’s constitution and establishing a Senate:
- Would Armenia’s citizens feel comfortable about the presence of Diaspora Armenians in their legislature or view them as foreign citizens, albeit Armenians, meddling in their domestic affairs?
- Should the Armenian government include hand-picked Diaspora representatives in the Senate, would this be viewed as an attempt by Armenia’s officials to exercise undue influence over the Diaspora?
- Instead of establishing a Senate, why can’t Diaspora Armenians be included in the existing Parliament?
- What would be the Senate’s legislative mandate, and how would it be different from that of the existing Parliament?
- Since the majority of Armenians live outside of Armenia, would the proposed Senate consist of many more Diaspora representatives than those from Armenia?
- How would Senators be chosen? Would they be elected by the public or appointed by the government or major organizations? If elected, what should be the qualifications of voters and candidates, who sets the criteria, and who organizes the elections?
- In case the Senators are elected, what steps should be taken to ensure that there would be free and fair elections?
- Can Diaspora Senators maintain their current citizenship, become dual citizens or be forced to give up their foreign citizenship?
- Would Diaspora members be obliged to move to Armenia to participate in year-round sessions or would they come to Armenia for brief periods for meetings dealing only with pan-Armenian issues?
- Are there any plans to undertake a comparative study of countries with Diaspora representatives in their legislatures?
- In order to maintain Diaspora’s independence and Armenia’s sovereignty, would it not be better to create a separate Diaspora structure in line with the process I proposed during last November’s USC conference? Armenian communities worldwide would elect representatives to a transnational assembly which would then select delegates from its ranks to serve in Armenia’s legislature.
- Was it mere coincidence that ARF leaders had publicly discussed the idea of creating a Senate that would include Diaspora representatives, long before Minister Hakobyan’s recent announcement? Interestingly, the ARF promptly announced its support for this initiative, while the Heritage Party opposed it, and the Armenian National Congress, led by ex-President Levon Ter Petrossian, called the proposal an “absurdity!”
The good news is that at long last the Armenian government has recognized the need to involve Diaspora Armenians in pan-Armenian decision-making processes and structures. However, before rushing to judgment, it would be wise to wait and see what exactly Armenia’s leaders have in mind in proposing Diasporan representation in a new Senate. The final decision should be solely based on whether this or any other arrangement is in the best interest of Armenians, both in Armenia and Diaspora.