Monday, March 22, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Plans to Cut Number of ‘Compatriots Abroad’ by Changing Russian Law

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 22 – The Russian government has sent to the Duma a draft bill that would significantly reduce the number of people living abroad whom Moscow considers to be its “compatriots,” a move that may reduce tensions with some former Soviet republics but that will anger many Russian nationalists and some non-Russians as well.
Yesterday, Russian news agencies reported, the Russian government sent to the Duma draft legislation that will change the legal definition of “compatriot abroad,” eliminating the current provision of the law that automatically included in that category all those who had lived in the former Soviet Union (
In forwarding the draft, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the new definition does not mean that Moscow will not “in case of need” extend “humanitarian assistance” to such people or that Moscow will not support “the preservation of the Russian ethno-cultural space by the use not only of the possibilities of the federal center but also by subjects of the federation.”
If adopted, the category of Russian “compatriot” will include “citizens of the Russian Federation living abroad and also persons living beyond the borders of the Russian Federation ‘who have made a free choice in favor of a spiritual and cultural tie with Russia, which relates as a rule to peoples which have historically lived on the territory of the country.”
In short, the foreign minister continued, someone will be classed by the Russian government as “a compatriot abroad” on the basis of “the principle of self-identification which is strengthened by corresponding social or professional activity” rather on the basis of birth or ancestry.
That represents a major shift. Up to now, Moscow defines “Russian compatriots” as including “all without exception” those born in the Russian Empire, the Russian Republic of 1917, and the USSR and their direct descendents, regardless of nationality or self-identification, the Regnum news agency continues.
On the one hand, this would bring Russian law into line with Russian foreign ministry practice, the news agency says, given that in recent years, Russian representatives abroad have defined as “compatriots, above all, Russian citizens abroad and a narrow circle of activists of Russian-language public organizations, the so-called ‘professional Russians.’”
But on the other, approval of this proposal, which is far from certain, would have three additional consequences, some of which its authors may have intended and others which are certain to create problems and spark debate among Russian nationalists within and beyond the borders of the Russian Federation as well as a number of non-Russian groups.
First, such a definition, as Regnum points out, will “liberate” the foreign ministry from defending all “the humanitarian and political rights of Russians abroad and especially in the near abroad’ – the term many still use for the former Soviet republics -- and from having to deal with Russian nationalist groups both within the Russian Federation and especially abroad.
Second, by linking self-identification to activity on behalf of the community, the new definition will simultaneously reduce the total number of people abroad in this category even as it prompts nationalist organizers to insist that people who could fall in this category assume a more active stance in order to be sure that they do.
Thus, the revision would mean in the case of Crimea, the Regnum news agency continues, that “only those of its residents will be recognized as ‘compatriots’ and defended by Russia who not simply speak Russia and consider themselves Russians, despite Ukrainian citizenship but also as a minimum are involved in a choral group at the Russian consulate.”
That would please likely please Ukrainians and the Ukrainian government, and it would certainly make the life of Russian diplomats easier, but it would certainly infuriate those both in places like Ukraine and elsewhere and in Russia itself who hope to sustain and promote what they see as a broader “Russian world” in the hopes of ultimately restoring a larger Russian state.
And third, this revision could dramatically affect a few non-Russian groups, some of whose members have been seeking the right of return for their compatriots abroad. Indeed, it is quite possible that a rising tide of demands by Circassians in this regard may explain the timing and shape of the current Russian government proposal.
Over the last several years, Circassians in the North Caucasus have sought to have their co-ethnics abroad defined as compatriots and thus included in the groups enjoying government support for repatriation. Moscow has resisted doing that, and if the new definition of compatriot goes through, the Circassians will be deprived of perhaps their strongest legal arguments.
Consequently, debate over this measure, which is likely to be intense, will find Russian nationalists among both its supporters and its opponents, something that will put the government itself in some difficulty as it simultaneously seeks to portray itself as a defender of ethnic Russians and tries to find a new modus vivendi with neighboring states.

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