Russia Hands Out Passports to Its Diaspora
As reported by the Kommersant newspaper, a project is being developed in Russia to abolish the requirement to renounce the citizenship of other countries before obtaining a Russian passport.
Under the existing rules of acquiring the citizenship of the Russian Federation, one has been obligated to inform the relevant office in their home country in which he/she holds citizenship about the intent to renounce it. According to Konstantin Zatulin, a Russian parliamentarian, these requirements were a major restriction for, among others, Germans of Russian descent who would like to hold Russian passports while at the same time being able to retain the citizenship of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Work on the facilitation of obtaining the Russian passport began in March 2019 when a special group was established by President Putin to work on these issues. The Russian administration hopes that such measures will lead to an increase in the Russian population by 5 to 10 million citizens, mainly from the countries of the former Soviet Union.
In April 2019, President Putin signed a decree facilitating the acquisition of Russian citizenship for certain categories of Ukrainian citizens. This applies, in particular, to the residents of the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine, to whom Russian passports are granted on humanitarian grounds. The decree facilitating the acquisition of Russian passports also applies to another group, that is, the citizens of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Syria who were born on the territory of the RSFSR (the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) and former citizens of the USSR, along with their children.
So far, mass passportisation has been carried out in conflict zones, that is, in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where, by handing out Russian passports, the Russian Federation has been able to conduct activities aimed at protecting Russian citizens against repression imposed by the authorities of Georgia and Moldova, which, according to international law, are responsible for these territories. The granting of Russian passports in these disputed territories was enabled by the 2002 law adopted by the Russian Federation, which granted Russian citizenship to stateless persons who had previously held Soviet citizenship. When the law was first introduced, 40% of the population of South Ossetia and 30% of Abkhazians already had Russian citizenship. As of 2008, 90% of the population of South Ossetia and 85% of Abkhazians had Russian citizenship. However, in the case of Transnistria, the process of granting Russian citizenship was conducted in a somewhat different manner than in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Transnistria, Russian citizenship was granted by Russian public organisations, as there was no consulate of the Russian Federation on the territory of this para-state. It is estimated that about 250,000 out of 500,000 people living in Transnistria hold Russian citizenship. Russian passportisation also took place in Crimea, starting in 2008 and ending with Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014. During this period, the Russian Federation issued Russian passports to the people of Crimea through its consulate in Simferopol, thus violating the law of Ukraine, which prohibits holding dual citizenship. In this case, the distribution of Russian passports was a deliberate operation aimed at maintaining Russian influence in the conflict zones and increasing the political dependence of these territories on Moscow’s policies.
The geopolitical interests of the Russian Federation are focused on restoring the Russian sphere of influence in the countries that were once a part of the Soviet Union. The Russian people as well as other Russian-speaking populations use mainly the Russian media, which promotes a pro-Kremlin vision of politics. Holding Russian citizenship without at the same time losing the citizenship of another country may lead to further tensions in countries where the Russian minority has a significant influence, for example, in Estonia or Latvia, where the Russian minority constitutes 30% of the entire population.
Apart from the geopolitical aspects, facilitating the acquisition of Russian citizenship is also of great importance to the internal situation of the Russian Federation. One of Russia’s main internal problems is depopulation, which is connected to a number of factors, such as alcoholism, the AIDS epidemic and a low fertility rate of around 1.57 per woman at the childbearing age of between 16 and 49 years. In Russia, the average life expectancy is 72 years, however, it is estimated that the population will shrink by 3.5 million by 2030.
The demographic problems in Russia translate directly into the country’s economy. The problem of depopulation affects mainly people of working age. Russia has also recorded a large outflow of entrepreneurs who left the country due to the unfavourable economic climate connected with the nationalisation of many enterprises. Therefore, facilitating the acquisition of Russian citizenship turns out to be part of a larger initiative that will enable foreigners to settle on the territory of the Russian Federation. The regulations concerning permanent residence on the territory of the Russian Federation have also been liberalised, allowing permits to be issued for an unlimited period. Previously, such permits were issued for 5 years.
To sum up, there are two main reasons behind the new legal regulations related to the liberalisation of the policy of granting Russian citizenship. The first one is connected with the design of the geopolitical plans of the Russian Federation, which should include the entirety of the Russian population, regardless of the place of residence. From Moscow’s viewpoint, the Russians who hold Russian citizenship and live outside the Russian Federation may form groups lobbying for their homeland, of which they are an integral part as citizens.
The second, equally important factor in granting citizenship to Russians living abroad is the economic aspect. The Russian diaspora, in particular, those living in Western Europe, may consider the possibility of settling and investing in Russia, provided that they have some kind of assurance such as the citizenship of another country, to which they will be able to return if the stay in Russia turns out to be unfavourable for them. Nevertheless, it seems that the countries of the former Soviet Union will continue to be the main direction of “acquiring” citizens. Many citizens of the post-Soviet countries still find the prospect of legal residence on the territory of the Russian Federation highly attractive. However, it is difficult to estimate whether the increase in the number of Russian citizens caused by mass passportisation will compensate for the population decline resulting from the neglect of social policy in the Russian Federation.
Jakub Lachert is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Political Sciences and International Studies at the University of Warsaw. His research interests include: European Union neighborhood policy, including, in particular, Eastern policy, Eastern Partnership, Western Balkans in the process of integration with the EU.