The Russian government has proposed legislation that would grant citizenship to anyone who speaks fluent Russian and had once lived, or who had relatives who lived, on the territory of the Soviet Union.
The draft law would apply to millions of people throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as Ukraine, Moldova and other parts of Europe. So, amid the crisis in Crimea, where one Russian justification for military intervention has been to “protect” ethnic Russians, the timing should increase anxieties in presidential palaces across the region that Moscow is also using a soft weapon in its arsenal to rebuild its empire.
In theory, ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in formerly Soviet states have long had the right to acquire Russian passports, but the process in recent years has become more difficult and protracted. Applicants must move to Russia and live there for three years, while jumping through a ruthless sequence of bureaucratic hoops. Nevertheless, since independence, according to official Kyrgyz statistics cited by Radio Azattyk, about a tenth of Kyrgyzstan’s population has received Russian citizenship.
Now, too, the process won’t be without sacrifices. Under the proposed law, applicants would have to wave their existing citizenship. But as the bill is written, it does not require the new Russian citizens to immigrate.
There are some vague caveats about how much the applicant must use Russian as a first language. That might help assuage persistent xenophobic concerns in Russia about demographic trends not in ethnic Russians’ favor. And of course, this being Russian legislation, the process will unlikely work as well in practice as it looks on paper.
Russia has a history of using passports as weapons. It justified intervention in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as its responsibility to protect its citizens, many of whom had been granted Russian passports in the run-up to the 2008 war with Georgia.
So, in light of events in Crimea – where pro-Russia political groups have skyrocketed to power and troops widely believed to be under Russian control have surrounded military facilities – the timing could inspire some scary hypothetical scenarios for Central Asian leaders. If many of the ethnic Russians in northern Kazakhstan, for example, decided to suddenly take up Russian citizenship, what would stop Moscow from “protecting” them?