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Russia

The High Stakes Of Putin's New Passport Policy

Crossing borders in and out of post-Soviet Russia is about to get more complicated, especially for Ukrainians.

Immigration officer conducts raids in St. Petersburg
Immigration officer conducts raids in St. Petersburg
Artem Nikitin

MOSCOW — Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s been possible for a Ukrainian, a Tajik or a Kirghiz to travel to and from Russia without a passport — and vice versa. But changing this freedom of movement has been on the Russian government’s agenda for two years.

In 2012, President Vladimir Putin gave the government three years to sign an agreement with these neighboring countries regarding the movement of their people within Russia. Citizens of Belarus and Kazakhstan, both members of a customs union with Russia, will still be able to travel to Russia with their domestic documents.

Last week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev took the first step by signing an agreement with Tajikistan. Of course, given the current crisis, the most important country to resolve this with is Ukraine.

It is an issue with vast effects, touching most ethnic Russians outside the borders and migrant workers from all former Soviet Republics.

Recent statistics show that there are currently 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens living in Russia, as well as 1.17 Tajiks and 337,000 Kirghiz nationals. Last year, 3.3 million Ukrainians visited Russia — nearly three million of them for work. Remittances from Tajik migrants living in Russia make up 42.2% of Tajikistan’s GDP.

At the same time, 50% of Russians have been to Ukraine and 25% have relatives there, according to a recent survey. Because only 10% to 15% of Russian citizens own a passport, the majority of them would face significant bureaucratic difficulties if one was required to travel to Ukraine.

An inadequate system

Until the end of the 1990s, Russia didn't require any passport or visa for travels to and from former Soviet states. This was a matter of convenience. Many people still used their Soviet documents at the time, and most didn't dream of traveling outside the former Soviet Union. It seemed useless and expensive to require them to get new documents just to travel to Russia.

Most former Soviet countries have now implemented systems that require citizens to use a passport whenever they travel abroad. That includes trips to Russia, but states have each solved the problem differently.

The price of getting a passport could be a serious obstacle for the 40% of Tajiks living on less than $2 per day. Obtaining the document only requires a couple of hours in line, but it can cost between $20 and $75.

On the other hand, 95% of the country’s citizens already have passports, the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Reuters. The problem is that most Tajik workers arrive in Russia by train, which requires them to travel through Uzbekistan. Even for transit, Uzbekistan requires everyone entering the country to have a passport. This means that requiring a passport will have no effect on illegal immigration into Russia.

Funny papers

The truth is, it’s not so important what documents travelers use to cross the border. What's important is that someone can tell what's written on them. And that is a major problem for both Tajiks and Kirghiz.

According to our information, Russia complained to Kirghizistan about illegible documents for the first time in 2005. Money for new equipment was “diverted,” and instead of new printers, the documents are printed on substandard machines.

“The photo is scanned on regular paper, which causes the likeness to be fuzzy,” says Vasili Kravtsov, a former employee at the Kirghiz migration offices. “Kirghiz people all look the same to the Russian border control, which makes it pretty easy to travel with someone else’s passport.” To solve these problems, a biometric passport with fingerprints could really help.

The Kirghiz aren’t opposed to traveling with a passport, but they would like them to be printed in Russia, preferably on Russia’s dime.

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Near the Russian-Kazakh border(Photo: PeretzP)

Ukraine doesn’t have the resources to print massive numbers of passports either. At the end of last year and at Russia's behest, talks began about requiring a passport to travel between Ukraine and Russia. Those talks have been halted since the Ukrainian crisis began.

After Russia annexed Crimea, several Ukrainian politicians started talking about either requiring visas to travel to Russia or closing the border entirely. Nonetheless, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arsenii Yatsenyuk said in March that his country was in no hurry to require passports for travel to and from Russia.

Checking your travel history

One of the most important functions of a passport is that it allows someone to easily see the history of a person’s border crossings. I was once stuck in a “holding station” in a Moscow airport because the border guard could not immediately see my travel history. It took some time to convince him that I had traveled from France by train, through Germany, Poland and Ukraine because of the Icelandic volcano, not because I was carrying drugs.

On the other hand, that knowledge does not help control migrants, although it does allow border control to immediately detect “suspicious” visits to hot spots.

Passports are important to Georgia, however, because they do not allow people to enter the country if they have stamps from disputed territories such as South Ossetia.

Russia already controls migrants by stamping the migration card, which is often excessively checked by the police. “There are even more problems with the migration cards than with the interior documents,” says Vyacheslav Postvnin, who was vice president of the Federal Migration Service from 2006 to 2008 and the head of a migration-related fund. “They usually have 25% to 50% of the necessary information, which is filled in by the migrant him or herself, often illegibly.”

That, along with problems transliterating migrants’ names into Latin letters, is why it’s often impossible to enter the name of a migrant into a database correctly.

Passport blockade

The Federal Migration Service is convinced that requiring passports would make it easier to control immigration. It would, the service says, make things more difficult for illegal migrants and would prevent “slaves” from working for free at construction sites because the “employers” would have taken away their ID documents. But is that really true?

Under the current system, migrants without a work permit can stay in Russia for 90 of every 180 days. They were previously allowed to stay for 90 days, but could easily leave the country for a day and then come back. Now, migrants who try to do that are fined and barred from entering Russia for three years.

Kravtsov, from the Kirghiz migration offices, says that many migrants are running into this problem. Immigration officers have also become more strict, sometimes even incorrectly fining migrants who don’t live in the same region where they received their work permit. So it’s possible to fight illegal immigration without passports.

Having a passport won’t necessarily help migrants in their interactions with the Russian police. If, for example, guest workers want to avoid being deported, they can always say they lost their documents. In those situations, the police have no choice but to let them go in return for a bribe. There’s no reason to believe someone couldn’t similarly “lose” his or her passport.

In the reverse situation, if a police officer seizes a migrant’s documents and demands a bribe to get them back, the migrant’s embassy has always come through and provided the documents necessary to prove the person’s identity, Kravstov says.

As for the workers forced to work for no pay at construction sites, they are usually working out of fear of reprisals or in the hope of receiving some money. In those cases, the “employer” usually has bought off police officers, who make sure that the modern-day slave is returned to the work site before making it to the embassy.

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