Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Restricts Definition of ‘Compatriot’

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 13 – The Duma has significantly reduced the scope of the definition of “compatriots” while increasing the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in dealing with such people and easing the rules allowing their return to the Russian Federation and acquisition of Russian citizenship.
Last week, the Duma adopted on third reading changes in the federal law “on state policy toward compatriots abroad,” changes that Aleksandr Dokuchayeva, the head of the Diaspora and Migration Department of the Moscow Institute of the CIS Countries, says will transform the way Moscow deals with such people (www.materik.ru/rubric/detail.php?ID=10302).
According to Dokuchayeva, the new measure makes five major and several additional minor changes. First of all, she notes, the newly adopted amendments change the definition of compatriot, “narrowing the circle of people” to whom the Russian government will apply that term in the future.
Until this change, Moscow had identified as “compatriots all persons who had ever lived on the territory of the Russian State, the Russian Republic, the RSFSR, the USSR or the Russian Federation and their descendents.” That meant that peoples outside the borders of the Russian Federation could qualify.
Now, however, “compatriots, besides citizens of the Russian Federation who have been living abroad are recognized as those who belong as a rule to peoples who have historically lived in Russia and also those (independent of nationality) whose ancestors earlier lived on the territory of the Russian Federation.”
For those in the last category, the amendments specify that what is “important” is “the fact of their free choice in favor of spiritual, cultural and legal ties with Russia,” a choice that can be demonstrated by their “social or professional activity on the basis of Russian and the native languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation” or by other “evidence of [this] choice.”
Second, the new amendments declare “the right of compatriots for the simplified acquisition of Russian citizenship,” something the compatriots had long sought and that Konstantin Zatulin and the KPRF had pushed. Third, the amendments eliminate any provision that Moscow will provide a document certifying that someone is a compatriot.
That will please some governments especially in the former Soviet republics who have expressed concerns about the implications for them of a large number of their own citizens having such a document, but it may complicate the lives of some “compatriots” who want to enroll in Russian universities.
Fourth, the new amendments define the World Congress of Compatriots, which is to be convened once every three years as “the highest representative organ of compatriots in Russia.” And fifth, the changes give a great role to the Russian Orthodox Church and in principle other religious groups in working with compatriots.
The experience of the last several years suggests that Moscow will modify these provisions over time either because of its own interests or because of the lobbying efforts of compatriot groups and their allies, but this new measure does provide a framework that suggests that Moscow no longer wants to view all those in the “near abroad” as potential compatriots.
That shift will cut two ways. On the one hand, it will please those Russian nationalists who fear that too many non-ethnic Russians who try to exploit this status. But on the other, it will infuriate at least some non-Russians who would like to claim it and undermine the efforts of those in Moscow who are trying to promote a tighter re-integration of the post-Soviet space.

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