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Russia: New Identity Documents Stir Ethnicity Debate

Moscow, 27 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - The infamous Soviet-era "fifth line," which defined citizens' ethnic identity in domestic identification documents, remains controversial in Russia, even as the country is slowly trying to conform to international standards.

Growing protest in the State Duma and in the Federation's ethnic republics over the new domestic identity documents is fueling debate with human rights activists.

The issue is confusing for many outside observers, as the internal identification documents are commonly called "passports" in Russian. But, in fact, they correspond to identification cards existing in many foreign countries and are not valid for travel outside the Russian Federation.

Last year, President Boris Yeltsin vetoed a parliamentary bill that required the mandatory mention of ethnicity in birth registration forms and certificates. Yeltsin also decided to change the format of the old Soviet internal passports. He ordered the creation of a special committee in charge of working out a new format conforming to international standards.

Yeltsin distributed samples of the new domestic identification documents to several students in a Kremlin ceremony last month. Russia's Interior Ministry has been instructed to issue new domestic documents replacing the old Soviet internal passports starting this month. However, Interior ministry officials have said only a handful have been issued so far, as printing is still under way of the new version, which has an imperial double-headed eagle on the cover instead of the communist hammer-and-sickle symbol.

The new identification documents carry no mention of nationality, understood as a person's ethnic group. Human rights activists welcomed the decision, saying the "fifth line" contributed to the Soviet system of discrimination and persecution against non-Russians.

In what appears to be, at first glance, rather surprising, leaders of some of Russia's ethnic republics not only did not share the view of human rights activists, but also said they would take measures on their own to preserve their non-Russian ethnic identity.

The influential President of Tatarstan, Mintimer Shaimiyev, was one of the first and more vocal critic of the new domestic passports. He said the new document "violates citizens's constitutional rights to both Tatarstan and Russian citizenship."

Shaimiyev complained that Moscow "should have agreed" on the format of the new passport "with all the leaders of Russia's republics and territories" before introducing it. Other ethnic republics, protesting the move and requesting changes, are Ingushetia and North Ossetia in the Caucasus, and Tatarstan's neighbor, Bashkortostan. Complaints by their leaders focus also on the fact that these republics want to retain the Soviet custom, under which some pages in passports were left blank, leaving room for the translation of the passport's contents into the local language.

Bashkortostan's officials were quoted saying that the republic is already planning to insert some pages in the Bashkir language, stating the holder's nationality and a translation of the contents.

Authorities in Tatarstan and Ingushetia have said the republics could start issuing their own internal passports. Tatarstan's parliament is due to debate the issue next month.

The leaders of some ethnic republics have also criticized the double-headed eagle on the cover of the passports. They say it is a symbol of Russian imperialism.

The President of North Ossetia, Akhsarbek Galazov, said federal authorities should introduce "cardinal changes" to the new passports' format. He said his republic would not be satisfied with simply adding blank pages to the new passports, fearing they would not be taken seriously outside the ethnic republics .

Communist lawmakers in Russia's State Duma have added their criticism to the concern of the ethnic republics. Following a debate in the State Duma last week, communist lawmakers sent a letter to the government, urging ethnic identification registered in the new domestic passports -- as an option available to each citizen. Communist deputies, including Duma Chairman Gennady Seleznyov, said they wanted to give citizens "the right to choose." However, their arguments were criticized by other deputies, who said they may be motivated by the desire to differentiate between ethnic Russians and members of the country's many ethnic minorities.

Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Vladimir Lukin of the Yabloko faction and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky both described the Soviet-era "fifth line" as "barbaric." During a heated debate Friday, they said "no civilized country" lists the nationalities of its citizens in passports. Lukin said that "a blank space in the passport would suggest that a citizen has complexes concerning his/her nationality." And, Zhirinovsky said that "the communists like to mention nationality just like the Jews were marked in (Nazi) concentration camps." A member of the communist-allied "popular-Rule" faction, Anatoly Greshnevikov responded to Zhirinovsky's statement saying that unlike "sons of lawyers," "Russians need not be ashamed of their nationality." Zhirinovsky's father was Jewish. Zhirinovsky once said that his mother was Russian and his father was a lawyer.

Human rights activist insist that stating citizens' ethnic identity on government documents should not be mandatory. Oleg Orlov, a member of the Russian human rights group "Memorial" said last week that it would be "unfortunate" if the government would "base its foundation on ethnicity." And one of Russia's most respected human rights activists, Duma deputy Sergei Kovalev, said at the week-end that the position of the ethnic republics is "not completely candid." According to Kovalev, within the Federation "several republics consider themselves superior to the others," and the discussion over the new domestic passports indicates more than anything else that "they strive to preserve their first-class status."

The government has not yet responded officially to the Duma appeal, but recent comments by government officials indicate federal authorities will likely try to take into account protests by deputies and ethnic regions' representatives, in order to avoid controversy.

Officials at the Interior ministry's passport and visa department told the Interfax news agency that they do not object to republics adding pages in their republican languages into Russian domestic passports, or creating their own passports to be used within the ethnic republics. And Government spokesman Igor Shabdurasulov said the commission working out the format of the new domestic passports "obviously did not understand that this is Russia, not the U.S. or a Western European country."