Between politics and geo-politics: Russia amends its citizenship law

By Ramesh Ganohariti (Dublin City University), GLOBALCIT collaborator.

In 2020, Russia made three important amendments to its citizenship law. These amendments facilitate the acquisition of citizenship for certain cultural/linguistic groups, reduce application processing periods, and waive some of the current naturalisation requirements for spouses of Russian nationals and highly skilled migrants. Such amendments are likely to increase the number of Russians and would, prima facie, point to an inclusive model of citizenship. Yet, this ‘inclusionary’ turn reflects a series of political and geo-political objectives through the expansion of citizenry within and outside the country’s borders. 

Once the first amendment (art. 33.1) comes into effect on 17 June 2020, citizens of Belarus and Ukraine residing in Russia will no longer be required to attend an interview to prove their competence in the Russian language. Availing themselves of the simplified citizenship application procedure (art. 14§2.1), they will be able to attest their Russian language proficiency with a handwritten declaration.

While legally this amendment equally benefits both Belarusian and Ukrainian citizens residing in Russia, in practice it targets mostly the latter. According to recent statistics, Ukrainians are more likely to naturalise in Russia than Belarussians. In 2019, almost 300,000 Ukrainian citizens acquired Russian citizenship, up from 83,000 in 2018. During the same two-year period only 9,700 Belarusians naturalised in Russia. Furthermore, citizens of Belarus can freely travel, work, and study under the Union State Treaty, and thus have a lesser incentive to acquire Russian citizenship. At the end of 2019, there were 270,400 Ukrainian and 34,700 Belarusian citizens who had temporary and permanent residency permits in Russia.

The amendment seems complementary to a reform in 2017 that allowed Ukrainians applying for Russian citizenship to declare that they applied for renunciation instead of having to submit documents from Ukrainian authorities confirming they were no longer citizens  (art 14.§2.1в). Similarly, in April 2019, Russia granted residents of the Luhansk and Donetsk separatist territories in Eastern Ukraine access to the fast-track procedure to Russian citizenship, waiving residency and renunciation requirements.

In a further amendment  (art.35§4 & art.41.5§2) coming into force on 17 June, the processing times for applications for naturalisation (or renunciation) under simplified procedures (art. 14) shortened from six to three months (for applications submitted within Russia). The same reduction in processing time is applicable to certain categories of people, such as former Soviet Union citizens who remain stateless and their children (art. 41.1§1). This amendment specifically targets applicants under simplified procedures with the goal of addressing Russia’s demographic crisis by rapidly increasing the number of its citizens.

The last, but most extensive set of amendments to the Russian citizenship law, was approved by both houses of parliament on 17 April. President Vladimir Putin signed the bill on 24 April, and it will come into effect 90 days following its official publication. When the new legislation comes into force, Russia will no longer require the renunciation of citizenship for incoming naturalisations in either ordinary or simplified procedures (art.13§1г). Previously, renunciation was not required only if there was an international agreement on dual citizenship or in the cases of Ukrainian citizens naturalising under the 2017 provisions. Lawmakers expect that the removal of the renunciation condition will pave way for up to 10 million people, primarily Russian speakers from the post-Soviet space, to acquire Russian citizenship.

While proof of Russian proficiency is a core requirement, the act introduces further facilitations for applicants eligible to apply for Russian citizenship under the simplified procedures. The key changes include reduction in residency requirements and waiving the proof of the source of income.

For example, individuals applying under the highly educated/professional category will have the residency requirement reduced from three years to one (art. 14.§2e); the residency requirement for spouses of Russian citizens remains at three years (art. 14.§2б), but the condition can be fully waived if the couple has common children (art. 14.§22). Moreover, the waiving of residence and the proof of income conditions will apply to citizens of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Ukraine (art. 14.§2л). While all naturalising citizens need to show proof of Russian proficiency, Belarusian and Ukrainian citizens proficient in Russian will only be required to provide a handwritten declaration stating that they are proficient in Russian (art. 33). One amendment that did not pass relates to the Russian diaspora being able to acquire citizenship without having to resettle in Russia. The Duma committee responsible for the drafting the amendments failed to reach a consensus, and concluded that resettlement to Russia is a key requirement in order to gain access to citizenship.

A number of these amendments have been motivated by the shrinking working-age population and low the birth rate in Russia, an issue that President Putin emphasised considerably during his annual address to the Federal Assembly. Furthermore, they are in line with the State Migration Policy of the Russian Federation for 2019-2025 (Art. 22). The main objective of the policy is to solve problems in the field of socio-economic, spatial and demographic development, as well as to protect and preserve the culture, language and the historical heritage of the peoples of Russia. While the policy states that the main source of replenishing the population of Russian should be natural reproduction, the migration policy seeks to solve the demographic crisis by attracting working-age migrants to compensate for the shrinking of working-age Russians. Thus, simplifying the acquisition of Russian citizenship is clearly seen as an important step to replenish the decreasing population.

Despite the main goals of the amendments being domestic, they also contain certain geopolitical elements. They are specifically directed towards citizens of the post-Soviet republics, particularly Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine, with Ukrainians being the largest group at an estimated three million living in Russia. As such, they complement Russia’s compatriot policy, which targets and incentivises (working-age) citizens of the near abroad to migrate and look towards Russia rather than the West.  

Thus, while Russia seems to have moved towards a more inclusive citizenship, particularly as regards abolishing the renunciation requirement for some categories of applicants, the recent changes to citizenship law mirror strong political and geopolitical objectives. The 2019 amendments seek to expand the citizenry internally and have been motivated by demographic changes and the need to increase the proportion of the working-age population. Those, like the 2017 amendments, that seek to expand it externally reflect Russia’s desire to project its power in the near abroad, and potentially create a citizenry that could be used to influence socio-political dynamics in their home countries.