An Armenian law that waives prison terms for draft dodgers in exchange for a monetary payment is the latest indicator of the governments desire to entice emigres to return.
The large majority of those who would be covered under the law are expatriates. Under the legislation, passed by the National Assembly on December 17, eligible Armenian males who have no record of military service, and who return to Armenia could avoid criminal prosecution upon payment of a fine of up to 1.8 million drams (roughly $3,500) to the Armenian Ministry of Defense. The law is scheduled to take effect on March 1.
To qualify for the amnesty, Armenians must meet one of three conditions: be at least 27 years old and beyond military draft age; have dependents or disabled family members that require their support; or meet other conditions for exemption such as university enrolment. The law is targeted primarily at males of conscription age who left the country between 1992, when the Republic of Armenia¹s armed forces were created, and 1995, one year after the Russian-brokered cease-fire went into effect that ended Armenia's war with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
Those males who fail to meet any of the conditions for amnesty would confront, in the event of their return to Armenia, either military conscription or criminal penalties, including a prison term. The legislation is groundbreaking in Armenia's post-Soviet legal history in that it allows for a monetary payment as a means of avoiding criminal prosecution.
No official data exists on the number of Armenian men who left the country to avoid fighting in the 1988-1994 conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, but some estimates put the number at around 16,000. Over the past decade, as Armenia struggled to stay afloat after the war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, roughly 1 million people are believed to have left the country in search of a better life in Russia, Western Europe, the United States and elsewhere.
Today, those migrants play a major role in the Armenian economy, investing in various business ventures, as well as remitting money to relatives back home. In many instances, expatriates are the sole source of income for Armenian families. An estimated 50 percent of the country's 3 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.
Keeping the door to Armenia open for expatriates and their families is viewed by many observers as vital for Armenia's economic stability. Though Armenia's economy boasted a growth rate of 12.9 percent for 2002, and 15 percent in 2003, job growth has not kept apace. The country remains dependent on funding provided by Armenians abroad. For instance, one Diaspora-funded project to repair roads and historical landmarks totals $160 million, an amount that was almost 40 percent of the government's revenues for the 2001 budget year.
Some observers believe the legislation may mark a first step towards the de-militarization of society that was brought on by the Karabakh war, and a return to a more balanced economic and social atmosphere. How the amnesty will play with a population that saw thousands killed during the Karabakh fighting, and tens of thousands more displaced, remains unknown. Some observers express concern that the legislation may foster resentment among poorer Armenians. The amnesty payment of $3,500 is almost equivalent to a year's salary for an average Armenian citizen.
Hrant Khachatrian, a co-author of the bill and leader of the opposition Constitutional Right Union, does not discount the possibility of a legal appeal to the legislation. Despite three years of work by both opposition and pro-government parties on the bill, its grounding in Armenian law may not prove "sound enough," he says.
Delayed or inconsistent implementation of the amnesty by Armenia's government agencies and embassies is another worry. "Poor execution may ruin the law¹s potential for good," says Khachatrian.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.