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Russia Mulls Fast-Track Citizenship, Sparking Brain-Drain Concerns Elsewhere

Proposed legislation that would give native Russian speakers abroad a fast track to Russian citizenship appears designed to lure highly qualified specialists and successful entrepreneurs.

The draft legislation, in the form of new amendments to its existing citizenship law, would pave the way for eligible, Russian-speaking applicants to get Russian passports within three months, skipping an otherwise lengthy and complicated procedure.

In introducing the legislation on March 6, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that it would allow Russian speakers who had lived on territories that were subject of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union to obtain Russian citizenship without getting permanent residence permits.

Medvedev's announcement raised eyebrows, coming as a separate draft bill was being mulled by the State Duma that would make it easier for Moscow to incorporate territories in foreign states into the Russian Federation.

That legislation is seen as intended to clear away existing legal hurdles that could complicate the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, a prospect that has been sought by pro-Russia Crimean lawmakers and which Crimean voters will decide on in a March 16 referendum.

Rather than sparking a wave of immigration or the large-scale provision of citizenship to Russian speakers abroad, however, analysts say the most controversial thing about Medvedev's bill is the potential brain-drain effect it could have on Central Asian states.

Some of the Central Asian countries struggle to retain qualified specialists, many of whom studied in Russian universities.

The new legislation would make it much easier for such candidates to jump ship to Russia, while leaving many less-qualified labor migrants behind.

According to new amendments, skilled specialists who have studied at state-approved universities in Russia and Russian territories after July 2002, and have lived in Russia for at least three years, would be eligible to apply.

Private entrepreneurs who have owned an established business in Russia for at least three years, generating an annual net income of about $80,000, would also qualify under the new criteria.

Prime Minister Medvedev said the opportunity for citizenship would be open to Russian-speaking foreign citizens and stateless persons, but would give preference to skilled specialists in high-demand areas.

"We are talking about people whose relatives or themselves have lived permanently in Russia, as well as in territories that belonged to Russia before the [1917] revolution, or were part of the Soviet Union," Medvedev said.


While the bill has yet to be debated and passed, "excitement over it is building up among Central Asian nationals living in Russia," says Karimjon Yorov, head of the Moscow-based Tajik migrants' organization, Etmos.

"We're getting phone calls from people who want to know more about the bill, hoping they qualify," Yorov says.

"For them Russian citizenship opens doors for better job opportunities, it scraps the necessity to obtain work permits, provides access to healthcare, and guarantees other rights. They are willing to accept all preconditions Russian laws stipulate for obtaining Russian citizenship," Yorov said.

According to Russia's Federal Migration Service's 2013 figures, majority of Russia's 11.2 million migrants originated from Central Asia.

While majority of the migrants wouldn't classify as sought-after, university-educated specialists, there are thousands of skilled, Russian-speaking professionals among them who graduated from Russian and Soviet universities.

"In Moscow alone, there at more than 500 Tajik doctors who work in city hospitals," Yorov says. "Everyone I know among them is willing to get a Russian passport if the opportunity arises. So are our students in Russian universities."

Millions of migrants from Central Asia work in Russia.
Millions of migrants from Central Asia work in Russia.

According to Russian media reports, there were more than 30,000 Kazakh students and nearly 11,000 Uzbek students studying in Russian universities in 2013. Yorov puts the number of Tajik students in Russia at around 13,000.

Central Asian countries send hundreds of students to Russian universities annually to study for rare, high-demand professions that -- in many cases -- are not taught at universities at home.

Aviation, communications, and information technology are among the careers Central Asian students are trained for in Russia with the help of government quotas.

In return, the students are required to return to their home countries and work there for at least three years.

"Many of the students say they are ready to pay fines to avoid going back home, and apply for Russian citizenship," Yorov says.

"As a result, our home countries stand to lose young, highly-skilled, foreign-educated specialists. But the governments have themselves to blame, because no one wants to stay for meager wages and low living standards in Tajikistan, or Kyrgyzstan for that matter."

The legislation on fast-track citizenship stipulates the establishment of special commissions to establish whether applicants are indeed Russian-speakers.

It sets a precondition that foreign nationals would have to give up their existing citizenship upon obtaining a Russian passport.

Duma's Constitutional Law and State Structure Committee is due to send the legislation to the chamber on March 21, the same day Russian lawmakers are expected to discuss the draft bill that would simplify the process for Russia to annex territories in foreign countries.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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