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Russia: Duma Approves Strict Citizenship Bill, But Is That What Is Needed?

  • Jeremy Bransten

After much debate, Russia's State Duma last week approved a government-sponsored bill that sets out tough guidelines for acquiring Russian citizenship. The citizenship bill, which is expected to sail through the Federation Council, will require a long residency period in Russia before an application for a passport can be made. Ethnic Russians residing in other CIS countries will have no special privileges.

Prague, 25 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 19 April, Russia's State Duma -- the lower house of parliament -- gave its final approval to a Kremlin-sponsored bill that significantly toughens the rules for acquiring Russian citizenship.

Among the bill's strict new requirements are a minimum five-year residency period in Russia, demonstrable fluency in the Russian language, and a legal job in Russia. Until now, only a three-year residency requirement was needed. And this was often not applied to ethnic Russians living in other CIS countries. In the past, no proof of employment or Russian-language proficiency was required for citizenship.

Passage in the Federation Council -- the upper house -- is considered to be a formality, which means the bill is almost certain to become law by the summer.

The vote was 252 to 152, with only two abstentions, reflecting the popularity among legislators of what is being touted as a cure for what some describe as a tidal wave of illegal migration.

There is broad agreement in Russian society that a law setting down clearer -- and firmer -- rules on citizenship is needed. Sergei Mikhailov, deputy director of the Moscow-based Public Policy Center, tells RFE/RL that President Vladimir Putin's administration presented the legislation in terms few could reject. In the Kremlin's view, he says, "the law has as its goal to systematize immigration and optimize it -- to ensure the immigration of those who are considered necessary to Russia and to set up barriers against chaotic, unregulated immigration."

But will the legislation -- in the form it was approved -- achieve its goal? On this point, Mikhailov parts company with the Kremlin.

"I think we need such a law, but I'm not sure we need one formulated in this way. In any case, I don't think it will resolve the [migration] issue because Russia's borders are huge and hard to patrol, from the point of view of halting immigration."

Zhanna Zionchovskaya analyzes migration trends for the Russian Academy of Sciences' Economic Forecasting Institute. She says legislators should have examined the issue more closely before approving a bill premised on what she terms anecdotal evidence. Zionchovskaya tells RFE/RL that frequent worries that Russia is being flooded by migrants from China and the CIS are unfounded.

Politicians often cite dramatic statistics on the number of migrants in Russia, but since no nationwide census has been undertaken since Soviet times, accurate figures are hard to come by.

Out of a total population of 150 million, Zionchovskaya says, "there are certainly no more than 5 million migrants in Russia at any one time, no matter how you calculate it, and they are working migrants. And most of them are not here illegally. The great majority cross Russia's borders legally and those who work here on contracts often do so legally or at least do not work illegally in greater numbers than Russian citizens."

Zionchovskaya says that passing a restrictive immigration bill puts the cart before the horse. Many people in Russia -- both Russians and non-Russian citizens -- work illegally, primarily in manual jobs, simply because there is a demand for their labor. Do away with the demand and the immigration "problem," as many term it, will be solved.

"We still have a very large shadow labor market, and it's clear that until we reduce the size of this shadow market, there will be a big niche for illegal employment."

Furthermore, says Zionchovskaya, the Russian citizenship bill lacks key components.

"We are adopting a law on citizenship, but we don't take into account people who do not want to acquire Russian citizenship but who want to work here or join a family member. For the moment, we have not introduced regulations on acquiring residency and renewing that residency -- rules which would meet Russia's requirement for immigrants, which would satisfy market demands and the demands of a mobile, civil society. For now, such regulations don't exist."

Given Russia's alarming demographic statistics -- death rates have exceeded birth rates in Russia for most of the past decade, resulting in an annual population shrinkage of more than half a million people -- lawmakers could have been expected to pass a law to encourage immigration, at least on a temporary basis.

Indeed, Putin in past months referred to ethnic Russians living in the CIS as a potential replacement force for Russia's shrinking labor pool.

But the new citizenship regulations passed by the Duma give no preferential treatment to ethnic Russians from other CIS states seeking to immigrate to Russia. The practice of issuing Russian passports to applicants residing outside Russia -- through Russian consulates -- has already been discontinued and will be permanently shelved under the new law. Sergei Mikhailov of Moscow's Public Policy Center does not see this as a problem.

"Many of the ethnic Russians who live outside of Russia's borders have, in the 10 years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, already acquired Russian citizenship."

One ironic -- and perhaps unwanted -- effect of Russia's new citizenship law is that it will make it harder for Moscow to complain about alleged discrimination against ethnic Russians in the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia.

The Kremlin has long claimed that mandatory language tests, residency requirements, and the nonrecognition of dual citizenship by those two countries is unfair for ethnic Russians there. But ethnic Russians -- or anyone, for that matter -- seeking Russian citizenship will now face similar obstacles.

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