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And Now Moscow, About All Those Russian-Speaking Ukrainians?

Bracing itself for an influx of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, Russia has indicated an easy path to citizenship. But skeptics note Moscow's notoriously tough migration policies.

Entrance to an Ukrainian military base near the border with Crimea.
Entrance to an Ukrainian military base near the border with Crimea.
Nikita Aronov

MOSCOW — Efforts to protect the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine have recently spawned three bills in the Russian Parliament designed to make obtaining a Russian passport easier. But it remains to be seen how the legislation will play out in a country where it has been notoriously difficult for even the best connected foreign nationals to obtain a passport.

Significantly, one of the bills arrives directly from the desk of President Vladimir Putin himself. If the legislation is approved, a qualified applicant for “simplified” citizenship would include anyone who once “possessed nationality of the USSR, the Russian Federation, the Russian Republic, was a subject of the Russian Empire, or have (or had) relatives in a direct ascending line related to these categories of persons.”

This could mean that anyone from a Turkmen to Finn could obtain Russian citizenship, as long as they are Russian-speaking. Decisions regarding citizenship would be made based on interviews with the applicants.

How and who would conduct these interviews is unclear, though the Federal Migration Service (FMS) is developing this policy. Until now, the formal requirements for language proficiency in obtaining citizenship were relatively soft.

But Russian nationalists fear that the new law would result in an influx of migrants from Central Asia, and they have promised to protest. The Duma faction of the Fair Russia Party, the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party also oppose such a broad initiative.

A case in point

Among the first winners of the Ukrainian crisis may be Masha Benz and her family. These Russian-speaking Ukrainians found themselves on different sides of the border by accident. Masha was born in Ukraine but went to school in Russia.

The family returned to Ukraine in the 1990s, and the passport Masha obtained was Ukrainian. Her parents retained their Soviet documents, which were exchanged for Russian ones, and they settled in the Arkhangelsk region.

Masha got married, had a son, Andrew, and settled near Kirovograd, in central Ukraine. But the boy was sickly, and the doctor advised that he move to a better climate. Moving to the Russian North at first seemed like a good idea.

Masha went with her husband and son to live with her parents, found work and made an honest attempt to obtain Russian citizenship. In 2009, they were given a temporary residence permit, and in March 2012, when it was time to renew the residence permit, Masha ended up in the hospital. She called the FMS hotline in Moscow and was reassured that her predicament would not preclude getting her permit.

But that proved untrue. All the people they dealt with said their applications should have been made in March, and renewing an application for a residence permit is not provided for by the legislation of the Russian Federation. Such is the bureaucratic trap.

Masha tried to complain, but ended up ruining her relations with the local FMS. Talks dragged on, and then the persecution began.

“My child’s insurance policy was cancelled,” she says. “He went to a sanatorium where he was treated, but my son suffered even more. Representatives of the migration service kept on turning up at my parents’ house. We had to flee to Moscow.”

A mistake to go “home”

The Russian Filipsky family fled from the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan in 2010 after riots in the Osh region, but they were not recognized as refugees. They were descendants of Russian mining engineers, and they did not live in Osh itself but nearby, in the mining town of Kyzyl-Kiya.

The status of refugees is only given if someone in the family is killed or if their house is burned down, but there needs to be video evidence, Maya Filipsky says.

“Many of our countrymen after the events in Osh went to Belgium,” says her daughter Louise. “There they have refugees status and can travel in Europe. We have been stupid enough to return home.”

Maya received Russian passports for temporary registration, but her children and Sergei Milan are not allowed citizenship.

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Russian passport — Photo: wellingtonstravel

Housing is even more important than the language applicants speak. For example, participants in the state resettlement program must obtain both citizenship and residence registration.

But this can’t be done from hostels, where immigrants tend to lodge, because an independent living space is required for residence registration. This is one of the reasons that the program doesn’t work.

Larissa Belyaeva, from central Asia’s Kazakhstan, says that once she settled in Moscow, “I called the FMS and said that I was a refugee and wanted to get legalized. I was immediately asked about my registration. Without it, even the security guard would not let me pass.”

Over the course of 16 years in Moscow, she had changed apartments 20 times with different landlords, but no one agreed to grant her temporary registration. Migrants can only afford the cheapest housing, and often the owners are not amenable to their client’s situation.

Larissa could certainly be considered a refugee. In the 1990s in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, the elite changed. Larissa was made president of her company, but when a new judge demanded a bribe from her company, she informed the local security officers. She was then placed under surveillance, and in 1998 her family was forced to flee.

The youngest daughter Tatyana left via Khanty-Mansiysk, quickly gained Russian citizenship, and gave birth to Adelina, who is also a Russian. But Larissa headed to Moscow with her eldest daughter to her late husband’s uncle’s place.

The uncle died soon afterward, and his next of kin evicted her from the apartment, so she had to take work as a janitor. Without citizenship, she was not accepted anywhere. She speaks great Russian, is well educated, and has an extensive employment history, but these are worthless with only a Kazakh passport.

When raids on migrants were being carried out in Moscow, she was held in a cell with Tajiks and Kyrgyz citizens. She tried to explain that her daughter and granddaughter were Russian citizens but to no avail.

Arbitrary application of the law

In general, people in Russia do not so much suffer from the laws themselves as from how they are applied. If all the rules and regulations worked for everyone, then these families would have been recognized as refugees.

But the attitudes toward migrants are a lot like the laws. For example, in Abhkazia, around the time of the Georgian war in 2007, Russian passports were freely given to Abkhazians without any special law being passed. But tens of thousands of Georgians, fleeing to Russia from Abkhazia after the first Abkhazian conflict in 1993, still can’t get Russian citizenship.

One can only guess at what will happen to those seeking Russian citizenship if new laws are adopted in the wake of Ukraine joining the Russian Federation.

But resident Svetlana Gannushkina notes that the new radical bill that would supposedly simplify the process of receiving Russian citizenship contradicts everything about current Russian migration policy.

“Over this past year, this area of the law has received 20 amendments, and all of them are repressive,” she says. “So I don’t believe that the documents will be accepted. I think the purpose of this discussion is political. I think that in this case, it is to show that we are ready to take care of our brothers around the world. The policy can be spun in that way, but then it will be revoked.”

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