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Russia: Putin Proposes To Relax Strict Citizenship Laws

Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced a bill this week that would make it easier for residents of other former Soviet republics to acquire Russian citizenship. Analysts agree on the necessity of Putin's amendments but differ about the motivations behind them.

Prague, 26 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin on 24 September introduced a bill that would remove some of the tough restrictions in the country's much-criticized citizenship law, which went into force in July 2002.

Putin proposed that former Soviet citizens who were officially registered in Russia as of 1 July 2002 receive Russian citizenship without the usual five-year residency restrictions, language exams, proof of financial solvency, and residency permit.

In addition, citizens of former Soviet republics who have served on a contract basis in the Russian armed forces for at least three years would also receive citizenship, as well as those married to a Russian citizen for at least three years. The amendments also would provide easier naturalization for World War II veterans.

Putin has requested that the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, consider the amendments as quickly as possible. Lyubov Sliska, the deputy chairman of the State Duma, welcomed Putin's proposals, saying they likely will be approved this autumn.

Some analysts say the amendments would likely increase the popularity of Putin and his political allies ahead of forthcoming Duma and presidential elections, due in December and next March, respectively. Andrei Ryabov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, told RFE/RL: "It is an important step taken by Putin for the sake of the election. It is also a step supported by Unified Russia [a pro-presidential political party], which also wants to present itself as one of the initiators of the amendments. I think everyone -- political parties, the political establishment, and society -- clearly knew about the shortcomings of the [current] citizenship law. It was unclear who had to take the initiative [and change it]. So, as expected, the president, the executive authorities and its allies -- the party in power -- took the initiative."

Analyst Dmitrii Orlov of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow think tank, said the amendments should be discussed apart from any political motivations. He believes the amendments are being suggested for practical, as well as political, reasons.

The first reason, he said, is economic. The Russian population is shrinking and the country needs to import additional workers. "There are economic reasons [why these changes] should be introduced. Russia needs immigrants because every year the population [of Russia] rapidly decreases," Orlov said.

Orlov said the Russia economy doesn't need university graduates, it needs immigrant manual laborers. "Without them," he said, "Russian construction sites and transport systems may face serious problems."

Ryabov is also critical of the preferences that the new amendments would apparently give to graduates of Russia's higher educational institutions. "Nobody in Russia can say what kind of specialists Russia lacks most," Ryabov said, "and this proposal is likely to give a free hand to the bureaucracy to make the decisions on their own, and it will increase corruption."

The latest information from the Russian State Statistics Committee indicates Russia has lost nearly 500,000 citizens during the last six months, due to emigration, the poor state of the health-care system, low birthrates, and deaths from alcoholism. Ryabov said this trend is likely to continue unless measures are taken.

The majority of those who would take advantage of the new amendments would likely come from the former Soviet Central Asian republics. Orlov said the amendments will help alleviate the problem of discrimination against the Russian minority in some of these countries.

He said the Russian authorities are mostly concerned about discrimination against the Russian minority in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, although they are more vocal about alleged abuses in the Baltic states, especially Latvia.

Ryabov said the amendments are inconsistent and that preferences should be given to ethnic Russians living abroad. "An ethnic Russian born, for instance, in Latvia or Tajikistan -- if he is a citizen of Latvia, Tajikistan, or some other country -- will have to undergo the same procedures as a Japanese or a Hungarian national who seeks Russian citizenship," Ryabov said. "An ethnic Russian will also have to pass Russian-language exams, and I think this is not normal. He should be given some preference because he is an ethnic Russian."

Vladimir Rybakov is the head of the Latvian branch of the Russian Compatriot Party. The party says it supports all Russian nationals living in the former Soviet republics.

Rybakov has said he welcomes the amendments to Russia's citizenship law, but said even now it is easy for a Latvian Russian who is not a citizen of Latvia to obtain Russian citizenship. However, he said, an ethnic Russian who is a Latvian citizen but who wants a Russian passport must go through all of the procedures in the current citizenship law, including fulfilling the language requirements.