Two decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, tensions between Russia and its neighbors remain. Over the past twenty years or so, the former Soviet space has experienced, among others, border disputes and controversies over army exercises, military bases and oil supply routes. However, underlying issues like the withholding of citizenship rights remain largely unnoticed and, as a consequence, unaddressed.
The Usual Suspect?
Russia is widely regarded as the main culprit behind tensions with its neighbors and controversies surrounding citizenship issues. Scott Littlefield has argued that Russian passports and citizenship have facilitated Abkhazian and South Ossetian separatism in Georgia and served Russian ‘geo-strategic gains’. Some authors have even argued that Russia has ‘weaponized’ citizenship by combining its right to grant citizenship with its sovereign ‘right’ or ‘duty’ to protect its citizens at home and abroad. In light of the growing mobility of citizens, and Russia’s continued policy of conferring its nationality extraterritorially, such as in Transnistria and Crimea, this could spur similar secessionist feelings elsewhere.
Yet Russia is not the only state responsible for such behavior. Georgia has also been accused of using the 2008 conflict to discredit Russia internationally, thereby turning the war into a battle between ‘east and west’. However, Tbilisi was nevertheless responsible for fanning the flames of conflict by marching its military into its northern regions, thus violating agreements between Abkhazians, South Ossetians and the Georgian government. Russia perhaps overplayed its ‘responsibility to protect’ card by marching its army into Georgia, however concerns that ‘its’ Russian passport holding citizens were in need of protection appeared reasonable.
Additionally, the fact that so many Abkhazians and South Ossetians had obtained Russian passports was at least partly Georgia’s responsibility. Georgia refused to grant United Nations (UN) passports to the residents of Abkhazia in the 1990s, which resulted in the mass acquisition of Russian passports as a means to travel. Had Georgia granted UN passports to its Abkhazian community, they might not have obtained Russian passports. As a result, Moscow would never have been able to use the need to protect ‘Russian’ citizens as a pretext for its intervention into Georgian territory.
Even on the Fringes of the EU
The Latvian and Estonian governments have also used citizenship rights to prevent their ethnic Russian populations from gaining political power. Both countries argue that granting ethnic Russians the right to vote and to state pensions would endanger Latvian and Estonian national economic interests. Criticisms from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the admission requirements stipulated by the European Union (EU) pushed Latvia and Estonia into making legal reforms. Both countries have introduced the category of ‘non-citizen’, which grants basic human rights, but not the right to vote.
This has taken some steam off the citizenship pressure-cooker, but it has certainly not solved the problem. Ethnic Russians are still defined as second tier citizens with limited rights. Reforms also slowed down after Latvia and Estonia were admitted to the EU. More importantly, problems still remain in the actual application of these laws. Latvian courts, for example, continue to discriminate against non-citizens as exemplified by its decision to withhold a pension for an ethnic Russian who had worked and lived in Latvia all her life.
Looking at the experience of the Georgian case, these discriminatory policies could prompt Russia to construct a Latvian or Estonian enemy. Moscow has, for example, already critiqued the EU visa waiver for non-citizens on the basis that it would delay the nationalization of ethnic Russians in both countries. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, argued that it was unacceptable for one in six Latvians and one in thirteen Estonians to be denied their fundamental political, electoral and socioeconomic rights and the ability to freely use the Russian language.
As long as Russia and former Soviet Republics remain insecure about their national identity and need ‘significant others’ to define themselves, passport and citizenship troubles are likely to remain. They provide a rather unstable and unproductive backdrop for finding common ground on more poignant issues like energy security, NATO expansion and border disputes. It remains to be seen if the EU’s reproach, the consequent introduction of alternative passports by Latvia, and the ECHR’s continued criticisms can do enough to prevent passport conflicts from turning into passport wars.
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