Washington, 5 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - Moscow's decision to eliminate the so-called nationality line from its new internal passports has been praised by those who believe it will help end ethnic discrimination and criticized by others who believe it will threaten their own communities.
But the attention to this ongoing debate has detracted attention from the fundamental fact that post-communist Russia has retained rather than scrapped an internal registration system that can give the authorities enormous and often arbitrary control over the daily lives of citizens.
President Boris Yeltsin on September 30 introduced the new Russian internal passport with a promise that the new documents would allow Russians to decide on their own "wherever you want to go and wherever you want to live." All Russian citizens are to have them by the year 2006.
Bearing the tsarist double eagle rather than the Soviet hammer and sickle, the new deep red internal passports have all the features of the Soviet-era documents they replace except one: they no longer have the notorious "line five" on which every citizen's official nationality was registered.
A Soviet citizen could only in the rarest of circumstances change his official nationality and thus became subject to the vagaries of Soviet policies which favored some groups and discriminated against others.
The Russian government's decision to drop this line has been widely praised in both Russia and the West. Human rights activists said elimination of this line would reduce the likelihood that the authorities would discriminate against Jews and other groups as they did in the past.
And they have echoed Yeltsin's frequent argument that the most important identity in the Russian Federation is citizenship, a self-identification that these activists suggest is a precondition for developing a civil society.
But if the absence of line five has generated praise, it has also elicited criticism from three different groups. Some Russians, either out of a sense of nostalgia or a desire to stress their Russianness, see the removal of the line as removing an important support for their national identities.
Other Russians are concerned that the removal of the nationality line could serve as a precedent for the governments of other former Soviet republics. Should the latter remove the ethnic line, Moscow would have far more difficulty tracking and exploiting the presence of ethnic Russians in these countries.
And many non-Russians inside the Russian Federation are concerned that the removal of this line is the first step in a broader campaign to reduce or even eliminate the privileges linguistic and cultural that some of them continue to enjoy on particular territories and to merge them into a broader, if political "Russian nation."
Among the most vocal of the last group are the leaders of Tatarstan. Both to defend their privileges as established in the power-sharing treaty between Moscow and Kazan and to support the large number of ethnic Tatars now living outside that Middle Volga republic, they see the retention of the nationality line, much as some Russians do, as defending their identities.
Tatarstan's President Mintimir Shaimiyev has even threatened to introduce an alternative local passport, one that would define its bearers as Tatars and thus challenge Yeltsin's vision of a single citizenship for the entire country.
If Tatarstan does take that step, at least some other regions and groups are likely to follow, creating a legal and even constitutional crisis with potentially destabilizing consequences for the Russian Federation.
But regardless of how this controversy plays out, the continued existence of internal passports is going to cast a shadow over the development of a more open and liberal society in Russia. At least some local officials are likely to use the internal passport much as they did in Soviet times to oppress those living under their power.
As a result, while many in both Russia and the West are pleased by the dropping of line five, they would have far more to celebrate if Moscow did away with the internal passport system altogether.