Since 2014, the Russian authorities have issued 360 thousand passports to Ukrainian citizens, but now they began to attribute the occupied territories to Russia. For many residents of post-Soviet countries, this is not news: they live with it for many years. What exactly awaits us, and can we apply the experience of Moldova and Georgia to the Ukrainian realities?

The “double-headed” epidemic can be stopped

Some people could think that Putin decided to give Russian passports to the Ukrainians immediately after the victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in the presidential election. In fact, Moscow came up with such an idea long ago and it took a while to prepare for its implementation. For example, Russian border guards started to attribute Luhansk to Rostov oblast back in 2017.

And on July 19, 2017, the State Duma adopted an amendment to the law, according to which it is no longer necessary to abandon the Ukrainian passport and provide a relevant certificate from the state bodies of Ukraine to obtain a Russian passport. The amendment says that “the document that confirms the refusal of a citizen of Ukraine of his citizenship is a notarized copy of his application”.

Apparently, Russia has huge plans when it comes to Ukrainians. Already at the stage of discussion of this amendment, the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Russia Alexandr Gorovoy said that 600 thousand Ukrainians who are on the territory of Russia “are looking forward to the solution of this issue.” Of course, he was talking about refugees, but there is no doubt that passports will be given to everyone who wants it because it has already happened repeatedly.

For the Russian government itself, the distribution of “two-headed” passports on the occupied or controlled territories is a long-standing process. Hundreds of thousands of Moldovan and Georgian citizens, the lands of which were encroached upon by Russia, have long had such passports. The Kremlin understands that the stolen will have to be returned at some point, so they make the process of this return as difficult and inconvenient as possible: what should be done with, say, hundreds of thousands of citizens who voluntarily became citizens of another country while staying in their homes? In Chisinau and Tbilisi, this question is not hypothetical at all.

The Executive Director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, Oleksandr Pavlichenko, says that, unlike Russia, which can distribute its passports both on its territory and on the occupied or controlled territories of Crimea and ORDLO (separate districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions), Ukraine can issue its passports to the inhabitants of these territories only when they leave them.

This is similar to what happened in the Crimea, but there, passports were issued already on the officially occupied territory, and here they will be issued on the territory, which is de jure considered the territory of Ukraine. “And here the question arises, what rights will these new citizens of Russia have?” Oleksandr Pavlichenko is interested. “Will they have the right to vote in the elections? Will they use the social security system: pensions, unemployment assistance, etc?”

According to Oleksandr Pavlichenko, the Russian passport, in any case, will be a blackmailing tool. In addition, the factor of worldview is also involved here: “the inhabitants of the occupied territories do not consider themselves occupied,” says the Executive Director of the UHHRU, “they believe that they were set free. But to be fully “free” they lack documents because the internal passports of the LNR and DNR are not recognized almost anywhere except Russia.”

Ukraine has already begun to threaten those who receive a Russian passport with penalties, although there is no law that would provide for criminal punishment. The second passport (for example, Russian one) is recognized in Ukraine as illegitimate: in fact, it is not a document at all. But even if the punishment is imposed, Oleksandr Pavlichenko sees here, first of all, the problem of identification. For example, it will be impossible to check whether the owner of the Russian passport was once a citizen of Ukraine. It will need to be proved.

Instead of punishment for a Russian passport, it is better to resort to other actions. In particular, to make the Ukrainian passport much more attractive than the Russian one. It is not only that in the Global Passport Power Rank Ukraine is on the 28th place, and Russia is on the 43rd because there is still no visa-free entry into the EU. The residents of the occupied and uncontrolled territories should realize that living in Ukraine is much more pleasant and profitable than in Russia, and for this, we need to develop our economy and labor market. “Ukraine has not offered these people a qualitatively higher standard of living yet,” Oleksandr Pavlichenko believes. “If we catch up at least with Poland in 5 years, Russian passports will no longer arouse such enthusiasm in them.”

Oleksandr Pavlichenko did not mention that it is also necessary to liberalize the language policy: after all, the Ukrainian language is still an obstacle for some of these people. If earlier the Russian propaganda frightened them with the spread of the Ukrainian language, now we need to show that there is nothing wrong with that.

200 thousand “Russians” live in Moldova

In Moldova, Russian passports started to be distributed back in the 1990s, when the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic was formed on the territory of this country – it was the first Moscow’s experiment of creating puppet enclaves in new independent states. Of course, the situations in Ukraine and Moldova are different, but in many ways, they are similar. So much similar, that it is possible to assume up to a certain limit that Moldova today is Ukraine in 20-30 years. This scenario is very unpleasant, because PMR still exists, and its citizens still dream of joining Russia. What should we do to avoid such a scenario?

Popular Moldovan Twitter blogger Sotnya Românească Andrei Diancu says that the exact number of Moldovan citizens who have Russian passports is unknown, but some indirect evidence shows the figure of 100-200 thousand people. This is not too much – about 5% of the total population, but about 50% of the population of PMR. Most of these “Russians” live in the occupied Transnistria, where Moldovan, Ukrainian, Russian and even Bulgarian passports are a window to the outside world because no PMR document is recognized outside.

In Moldova, the “Russians” are treated indifferently. “The war in Transnistria came to an end 27 years ago and over the years the right and left banks have accustomed to live separately,” says Andrei Diancu, “the vast majority of the right-bankers have never been on the left bank and do not seek to get there, because there is nothing interesting in this area, which is stuck in the late 1980s. A part of Moldovans is internally ready to accept the secession of Transnistria, another part is openly hostile to it, but most people are indifferent to the problem of Transnistria and the Russian passportization.”

Only a few thousand citizens with Russian passports live on the territory of Moldova, and they do not make a difference and do not pose any threat. But there is also another side to the problem of foreign passportization: a large part of Moldovans have the right to restore Romanian citizenship, which they lost against their own will during the Soviet occupation of the 1940s. According to various estimates, the number of Romanian citizens in Moldova now ranges from 500 to 800 thousand – almost a quarter of the country’s population. Of course, the Romanian passport is much more attractive for its owner than the Russian one.

Georgia secretly encourages citizenship

The Russian passports have been issued in Georgia since the late 1990s, when the conflict between the government in Tbilisi and the self-proclaimed government of South Ossetia began, where Russia, along with the accelerated passportization, began to develop its military bases.

The political expert and ex-press secretary of the Embassy of Georgia in Ukraine Bacho Korchilava believes that the distribution of Russian passports on the occupied territories affects the consolidation and deepening of the conflict. “98% of the population of one of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia are citizens of Russia,” he says. “And in South Ossetia, they are 95%. These people feel more as citizens of Russia than Georgia, and there is effective management by the authorities of the Russian Federation on the occupied territory (that is, there is their judicial system, elections, etc. – author’s note). The same is waiting for Ukraine.”

Dual citizenship in Georgia is allowed only in exceptional cases by the personal decision of the president of the country. But there is no penalty for the possession of a Russian passport in Georgia. On the contrary, the Georgian authorities need as many “Russians” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as possible to obtain Georgian passports, even secretly from the Russian occupation authorities. “The Russians specially create such conditions that it is impossible neither to work nor to study without the Russian passport on the territories seized from Georgia,” explains Bacho Korchilava. “The Russian authorities will also create such conditions on the occupied Ukrainian territories.”

Bacho Korchilava advises Ukraine to develop its economy and security sector and to wait for the window of opportunities when these territories can be brought back under control.

A former people’s deputy of the Parliament of Georgia (2012-2015), as well as former deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine and Prosecutor of Odesa region (2015-2016) David Sakvarelidze also notes that the main factor that influenced the choice of the Russian passport by Georgians was economy. “We could not resist this, because people who received Russian passports had more trade relations with Russia than with Georgia. We tried to develop the infrastructure, hospitals, schools so that they would come to us, integrate in Georgia, establish economic and business ties here. I think that economic rapprochement is more effective than punishment for Russian passports.”

David Sakvarelidze advises to constantly put pressure on the Russian authorities at the international level, to regularly update this topic in conversations during meetings and international negotiations. “In addition, you must, by all means, increase the political value of the Ukrainian passport,” he advises.

Background information:

By the way, the Russian citizens live not only on the occupied territories. In the mid-2010s, they were 1.5% of the population of Latvia, 0.35% of the population of Lithuania and 6.5% of the population of Estonia (in 2019 they were already 7.7%). There are so many of them in this country because 25.1% of the Estonian population are ethnic Russians. As of January 1, 2019, 88,785 citizens of the Russian Federation lived in Estonia. During the year, their number decreased by 948 people. Until 2003, the Russians even had their own party in the Estonian Parliament.

All the advice from Moldova and Georgia are not yet effective for Ukraine, because the armed confrontation between Ukraine and its occupied regions in the East goes on, so no economic integration even seems possible under such conditions. Not to mention Crimea, which Russia is prepared to defend with all available forces. We can only hope for that fabulous “window of opportunities”, which will open for us when Russia will have problems more serious than the retention of the occupied territories of its neighbors.

By Oleh Shynkarenko

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