Andrey Devyatkov: Not that easy: Why do Transnistrians have problems with getting Russian citizenship?

Russian and Transnistrian officials were arguing last year that about 220 000 people living in Transnistria have already received Russian citizenship. Nevertheless, during all the visits of Transnistrian delegations to Moscow in last couple of years one issue was permanently discussed, namely the difficulties for some categories of people from the break-away republic to get the citizenship of the Russian Federation. At the beginning of April this subject was again touched upon when Transnistrian leader Vadim Krasnoselsky while being in Moscow met some Russian high-level parliamentarians. Why is this issue on the agenda of bilateral relations between Moscow and Tiraspol and will it be solved soon?

The usual procedure for getting Russian citizenship presupposes that a person has been living in Russia permanently at least 5 years since he/she had obtained the residence permit. A simplified procedure (not including such a pre-condition) is foreseen only for two categories of people: firstly, for those who have at least one parent living in Russia and being a Russian citizen, and secondly, for those who had a Soviet citizenship, lived and are still living in a former Soviet republic without obtaining the citizenship of this republic. All people complying with these provisions have by and large got Russian citizenship after they applied for it at the Russian Embassy in Chisinau or its consular center in Tiraspol.

But after the demise of the Soviet Union many Transnistrians have received citizenship of other countries – Ukraine, Moldova, or Romania, just to have an opportunity to cross borders without any obstacles. And it is quite hard for them to hide this fact from Russian authorities because they used to cross the Russian border previously with passports issued by these countries. To receive the Russian citizenship, according to the Russian law they need to officially renounce their citizenship. But both Moldova and Ukraine have made this procedure as difficult as possible. For instance, Moldovan authorities set up the following list of demands: a “letter of indemnity” from Russian migration service; a fee in the amount of 330 Euro; consent for relocation and permanent residence in Russia issued also by Moldovan authorities (for which you need to apply separately and pay additional 170 Euro); duration of the procedure – 1 year. Many people used to argue that it is almost impossible to get the official renunciation of citizenship. For instance, Russian migration service used to issue “notifications about a possibility to get Russian citizenship” and not “letters of indemnity”, what by itself can be treated as a reason for Moldovan authorities for rejecting the application of a citizen.

The second problem appeared since people, who were born after February 6, 1992 are automatically treated as citizens of Moldova and do not have a right to apply for the Russian citizenship through a simplified procedure (if they do not have parents with Russian citizenship living in Russia permanently). It means that they need to apply for residence permit, live in Russia after that for at least 5 years and to renounce their citizenship if they have any.

The Transnistrian authorities have for a long time tried to address both problems during their negotiations with Russian officials and deputies. In Russia the parliament became a platform where some parliamentarians have tried to simplify the procedure for getting Russian citizenship for people living in the post-soviet space. This issue became particularly challenging after the Ukrainian crisis broke out in 2014 and more than a million of Ukrainians migrated to Russia in order to stay there permanently. The general problem here is the contradiction between various priorities: on one side, Russia is interested in migrants for sustaining the labor market and improving the deteriorating demographic situation. Besides, Russian authorities used to declare many times that they are committed to the idea to simplify the administrative procedures for compatriots from the former Soviet republics. But on the other side, Russian authorities are aware of security situation and such a threat as terrorism. The Russian public used to get outraged when terrorist attacks like that in Sankt Petersburg in 2017 were performed by people who got the Russian citizenship through a simplified procedure while living abroad (predominantly in Central Asia). That’s why the Russian security services are opposed to any liberalization of migration law. Besides, the Russian authorities used to take care of country’s labor market to prevent its overheating due to high migration inflow.

In April 2014 the Russian law on citizenship was amended: the right for a simplified procedure for getting the Russian citizenship was delivered to people who can be recognized by Russian authorities through an exam as “native speakers of Russian”. But except the command of Russian language people applying for this status need to have lived permanently on the Russian territory before or to have lineal ancestors with the same status. If it is referred to the period of Russian Empire or Soviet Union, person should prove that he/she or his/her lineal ancestors had lived on the territory within the current “state borders of the Russian Federation” (Art. 33.1.).

At the end of 2016 Konstantin Zatulin, the deputy head of the State Duma Committee on Commonwealth of Independent States, Eurasian Integration, and contacts with compatriots, initiated a bill, which was aimed at bringing away all the hurdles for people, who had lived on the territory of the whole former Russian Empire or Soviet Union or had linear ancestors of the same origin. Besides, the bill foresaw the cancellation of norms, which oblige people to bring in an official confirmation about renouncement of the citizenship issued by the authorities of the respective country. The period of validity for residence permit issued for “native speakers of Russian” should not be restricted, so the author of the bill.

The Legal Department of State Duma rejected this bill on formal grounds. That’s why another group of influential parliamentarians initiated the second bill in a few months. This time the bill was much less ambitious: it was suggested to enable the Government of Russian Federation to set up a list of countries, whose citizens are not obliged to bring in an official confirmation about renouncement of the citizenship, due to “impossibility of such submission, caused by political or any other reasons”. The liberalization of the procedure for getting the status of “native speaker of Russian” was not mentioned. Nevertheless, the Legal Department again rejected the initiative.

Exactly these two bills were aimed at eliminating the key hurdles for Transnistrians to get the Russian citizenship. Probably some new initiatives on liberalization of the Russian law on citizenship will appear soon, but the key question remains the same: why should Russia grant its citizenship to Transnistrians, who do not have enough grounds to benefit from a simplified procedure, without giving the same right to people living in countries, which are now members of the Eurasian Economic Union (like Kirgizstan)? The Russian authorities are determined to have a generalized procedure for all former Soviet republics, without any exceptions. Even despite of competition with such countries as Romania and Ukraine, which grant their citizenship to the people living in the region in a much easier manner. The existing barriers will not prevent people from striving for Russian citizenship, but they will make their way much more difficult and expensive.