Circassians Say Russian Citizenship Should Be Equal for All Ethnic Groups

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 8

On April 4, Russia’s State Duma passed a law that simplifies the process of acquiring Russian citizenship. The new legislation enables people to obtain a Russian passport if they speak Russian and their immediate ancestors lived on the territory of the Russian Federation, Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. The applicants must move to Russia and renounce their foreign citizenship to qualify. If these conditions are satisfied, such applicants are put on the fast track to receive a Russian passport within three months. The head of the Duma’s committee for constitutional legislation and state building, Vladimir Piligin, stated that the new law would cover the newly annexed regions of Russia— the Republic of Crimea and the peninsula’s federal city of Sevastopol. The decision to grant Russian citizenship will primarily lie with the language commissions that will test and certify that the applicant speaks Russian (http://www.interfax.ru/russia/369606).

Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian territory triggered the passage of the new legislation on Russian citizenship. However, some affected Russian ethnic minorities scathingly criticized the new Russian law for its discriminatory character. In the official language of the law, to be put on the fast track to receive a Russian passport, the applicant must “speak the Russian language and use it daily at home and culturally.” The problem with this is that many ethnic groups whose members live or lived on the historical territories of the Russian Federation speak their own languages. In many instances, they did not immigrate to Russia; rather, their territory was conquered by the Russian Empire or one of its later incarnations.

Piligin said in response to the critics that the language requirement was not about ethnicity. “We are talking about granting Russian Federation citizenship to those people who are the bearers of the Russian language,” he said. “This is not about any particular nation or ethnic group. We are talking about all the people who were historically connected to Russia—their families lived on Russian territory. Thereby, we are creating the conditions for resolving the fate of many, many people who are prepared to reject foreign citizenship and reside permanently on the territory of the Russian Federation” (http://er.ru/news/2014/4/4/duma-rassmatrivaet-zakon-ob-uproshenii-polucheniya-grazhdanstva-rf/).

Several million Circassians were scattered around the world after the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century. According to the new Russian law, they will not be eligible to receive Russian citizenship because of their lack of Russian language skills, even though they still may speak Circassian. The issue is especially pressing for the estimated 100,000 ethnic Circassians caught in the violence in Syria, who have been unable to return to their historical homeland despite repeated appeals by the North Caucasian Circassians to the Russian government.

The head of a Circassian organization in Adygea, Adam Bogus, told Rustoria.ru website: “Let us not talk about the Circassians; let it be the Tatars or Evenks or any other citizens of the Russian Federation. They have to have equal rights as described in the constitution. That is why the law should be for all people who may be considered relatives of Russian citizens, so for all people who know one of the languages of the indigenous peoples of Russia—whether it is Chechen, Tatar or any other. If the person knows that language and he is an indigenous Tatar or Circassian, he should have the right to return to his homeland along with a Russian or a Ukrainian.” As an interim solution to the problem, Bogus proposed simplifying the visa regime with countries that have many Circassians and increasing the quotas for repatriates from those countries (http://rustoria.ru/post/krymskaya-repatriaciya-udivila-cherkesov).

Russian nationalists were equally alarmed by the legislation simplifying the process of obtaining Russian citizenship, albeit for a different reason. “Nearly any resident of Central Asia or Transcaucasia will be able to apply to join the ranks of our co-citizens,” the nationalist-leaning website Apn.ru noted with alarm. The website provided web links for readers to write the Russian president and other officials to protest the new law (http://www.apn.ru/news/article31355.htm). Russian nationalists have fiercely opposed the inflow of economic migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, arguing that the process is changing Russia’s ethnic balance.

With Crimea’s swift admission into the Russian Federation, Moscow acquired a myriad of issues that pit the central government against various ethnic groups in the country. Given the full-fledged authoritarian regime in Russia and the small size of ethnic groups like the Circassians, the Russian government considers it safe to ignore such demands. However, the gap between what the Russian government declares and what it actually does is likely to undermine the positions of Moscow’s representatives in the republics, especially in the North Caucasus. Also, when Russia’s political system becomes more open, which will happen eventually, Russia’s minority groups who increasingly feel sidelined by ethnic Russian nationalism will demand a reckoning.