Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 21

Russia’s new identity document creates an uproar in Tatarstan

By Gulnara Khasanova

Few people in Tatarstan reacted with equanimity to news of the introduction of Russia’s new passport (the identity document carried by all Russian citizens). Participants in the heated debate say that this is a question not just of a passport, but of the fate of the Tatar nation itself. What is it about the new document that has provoked the objections of both legislators and ordinary citizens in Tatarstan?

* The new passport contains no entry for "nationality" (that is, ethnic origin).

* The double-headed eagle on the front cover of the passport is the coat of arms of the Russian Empire and includes Christian symbols. It has not been approved by the Russian parliament as the coat of arms of the Russian Federation.

* The passport provides no space for a statement that the holder is also a citizen of Tatarstan, although the Constitution of the Republic of Tatarstan and the Treaty on the Division of Powers between Russia and Tatarstan both provide for dual citizenship for residents of Tatarstan.

* All of the notes in the passport are in Russian; there are no notes in Tatar or any of the other official languages of the republics of the Russian Federation.

Discussion in Tatarstan’s parliament, the State Council, was marked by its calm and constructive tone and the unanimity of the deputies, who represented various ethnic groups. As Tatarstan’s president Mintimer Shaimiev noted, there were no calls for Tatarstan to leave the Russian Federation. "The deputies defended Tatarstan’s sovereignty in accordance with its Declaration of Sovereignty and its Constitution while, at the same time, expressing concern for the building of a democratic Russian Federation," Shaimiev said. Indeed, the State Council decided not to act hastily in this matter. Instead, parliament postponed the issue of the new passports in Tatarstan until such time as the disputed issues are resolved.

The controversy demonstrates, in the deputies’ opinion, a well-known Russian political maneuver: when the state cannot cope with domestic issues — above all, economic problems — it plays the "ethnic card."

Fear of Assimilation

The most painful and, at the same time, ambiguous reaction was elicited by the absence in the new passport of a space for "nationality "(used here not to mean citizenship but in the sense of ethnic origin). Curiously, the division on this question did not run not along ethnic lines. At the State Council session, representatives of various ethnic groups, including ethnic Russians, could be observed defending the citizens’ right to indicate their ethnic origin.

What are the arguments on both sides?

The authors and supporters of the idea of abolishing of the notorious "Point No. 5" (which, in the old Soviet passports, specified the holder’s nationality) say that, in civilized democratic countries, the state does not interfere in ethnicity and no mention is made of ethnic origin in identity documents.

But the loss of ethnic identity scares members of national minorities in Russia far more than accusations of being antidemocratic. They say they are being deprived of the right to indicate their ethnic origin not because the Russian authorities want to affirm their adherence to democratic norms, but for quite different reasons, such as the desire to dismantle the federation and transform Russia into a unitary state. Members of Russia’s national minorities discern the old, familiar Bolshevik logic at work here: They recall the statement ascribed to Stalin "no person — no problem," and say that in this case it is a matter of "no space for ethnic origin — no ethnic group; no ethnic group — no problem." They warn that in Russia, which is a multinational federal state whose republics are formed along ethnic lines, this can mean only one thing — that there is a plan to dismantle the national republics, re-impose the old, pre-revolutionary system of provinces (guberniyas), and carry out the forced assimilation of non-Russian peoples by administrative means. As evidence, they cite a candid statement by Valerii Tishkov, director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and one the ideologists of the government’s nationality policy. Tishkov was quoted in Izvestiya on 4 November 1997 as saying that, if the government gives in on this issue, it will take Russia thirty to forty years to complete its nation-building, and even then the outcome will be far from certain.

It is the non-Russian peoples who feel ethnic discrimination most strongly, and it is they who have reacted most sharply to the attempt to abolish the entry for nationality. In Tsarist Russia, there was only one expression for all of the non-Russian peoples, "non-Russians" [inorodtsy]. Now, there are several more, such as "person of eastern nationality," "person of Caucasian nationality," and so on. Remember the actions taken in recent years to expel "people of Caucasian nationality" from Moscow. If "Point No. 5" is abolished, the Russian tradition of stripping ethnic groups of their identity could quickly reach the point where the very names of nations and peoples were forgotten.

Therefore, the national minorities take a skeptical view of the democratic intentions of the federal authorities. Moreover, as one of Tatarstan’s deputies put it during the parliamentary debate, democracy for the wolves does not necessarily mean democracy for the sheep. The fear of assimilation is stronger than the hope that, by removing "nationality" from people’s identity documents, ethnic discrimination will be prevented.

The objections of the supporters of keeping an entry for "nationality" boil down to the following:

a) Conditions in Russia are different from those in other countries and its population has a different mentality. Russia still has 200 years to go before it can be compared to countries in which democracy is well-developed.

b) Russia was created as a multinational federative state. Its constituent republics consider the national component to be one of the most important parts of their "sovereignty." If the entry for nationality is removed, Tatarstan will be left without Tatars, Bashkortostan without Bashkirs, and so on. The logical reason for the existence of the national republics will disappear, opening the way for the re-imposition of the provincial system (gubernizatsiya). How, then, will the rights of national minorities be secured?

c) Why is it only the entry for nationality that is being removed? The new passport retains space for recording citizens’ registration at their residence, the so-called "residence permit" (propiska), which is not only unknown in democratic countries but violates Russian citizens’ constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of movement.

d) Those opposing the removal of "Point No. 5" argue that the purpose of the proposed measure is not to reinforce democratic principles but to speed up the assimilation of national minorities. While the federal authorities "fight" for democratization in this way, nations, national languages, and national cultures are dying out. Not a word has yet been said, for example, about issues concerning the cultures of non-Russian peoples on the new nationwide television channel "Kultura."

Those who want to retain the entry relating to nationality argue that "everyone has the right to define and indicate their ethnic origin, and no one may be forced to indicate their ethnic origin." Where can citizens declare their national origin, if not on their passports? Moreover, Russian legislation — the Civil Code, the Family Code, and other acts of legislation — all take the ethnic factor into account. In particular, the federal law on civil status provides for the possibility of indicating one’s national origin. In other words, Russian legislation is inconsistent on this issue.

Some Tatars living outside Tatarstan do not want to indicate their nationality because they fear ethnic discrimination. Opponents of scrapping the nationality point answer as follows: national origin should be indicated on a voluntary basis only. Everyone should have the right to choose not to indicate his or her nationality.

There has been some dispute over the ethnonym "Tatars." Some ethnic groups wish to be called "Bulgars," "Baptized Tatars," "Mishars," or "Siberian Tatars." To this, opponents of dropping the entry respond that it is a question for scholars. Such disputes, they say, should be carried on independently of the issue of the passport. The ethnonym "Tatars" is recognized throughout the world.

Tatarstan’s deputies voted unanimously in favor of retaining the right to indicate national origin on the passport. The resolution adopted by parliament asserted that the Russian passport should offer citizens the opportunity to indicate their nationality if they so desire.

Objections to Imperial Symbolism

The symbol of the double-headed Russian eagle on the cover of the new passport provoked emotions which were equally heated. The eagle does not enjoy much popularity among the non-Russian peoples, since it was the coat of arms of the Russian Empire. It is associated with especially painful memories for the Tatars: historians say that the three crowns above the eagle’s heads symbolize the Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberian khanates, populated predominantly by Tatars and subjugated by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. Tatars object especially to the three crosses that adorn the crowns, seeing them as a Christian symbol and, accordingly, as a sign of contempt for those who profess other religious beliefs. They evoke memories of the forcible baptisms with which Ivan the Terrible followed his conquest of the Kazan khanate, and the flight of Tatars that ensued. It might also be added that there is some doubt as to the legitimacy of this two-headed feathered creature as Russia’s national coat of arms, since the use by today’s Russian Federation of the symbols of the Russian Empire has not been sanctioned by the legislature but introduced by decree of President Boris Yeltsin.

Clearly all these emotions played a role when representatives of national movements marked October 15, the anniversary of the capture of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible’s troops, by burning an effigy of the new Russian passport, "turning that illegitimate bird," as journalists later observed, "into grilled chicken."

But the Russian coat of arms also had its defender. During the debate in the Tatarstani parliament, President Shaimiev reminded deputies that they were talking about the Russian, and not the Tatarstani passport, and that it was unwise to permit any disrespect toward the national symbol. This clearly played a decisive role: in spite of the numerous criticisms deputies made of the Russian coat of arms, the text of the resolution finally adopted contained no such language. Instead, a proposal was made that the new passports should contain a depiction of the coats of arms of the Russian republics.

Dual Citizenship

The issue of citizenship elicited the most principled objections. Citizens of Tatarstan have dual citizenship. This is stated in the Constitution of Tatarstan and the Treaty on the Division of Powers between Russia and Tatarstan, while Russia’s Law on Citizenship makes allowance for dual citizenship. Similar norms have been adopted in a number of other republics of the Russian Federation. However, the proposed passport gives no hint that this is so.

It is this point, according to President Shaimiev, which prevented him, as guarantor of the republic’s constitution, from agreeing to the introduction of the new passport in Tatarstan in its present, disputed form. And it is this peculiarity of the Russian document which prompted the deputies to call unanimously for the introduction of a Tatarstani passport and for the speedy adoption of a law on Tatarstani citizenship. Many parliamentarians linked the issue of Russian passports with the adoption of a republican citizenship law, and called for a halt to the distribution of the new Russian passports until such a law is passed.

In this connection, the idea was expressed that someone with Tatarstani citizenship should have a Tatarstani, not a Russian, passport, and that both citizenship documents should not be in the same passport, since a person may want to accept only one. The Constitution of Tatarstan contains a provision saying that citizenship may not be forced on an individual, nor may he or she may be deprived of his or her citizenship. The idea that Tatars living outside Tatarstan should also have the possibility of receiving Tatarstani citizenship was another theme in the discussion. As a result of the debate, an indication of republican citizenship was included on the list of items that ought to be included in the new Russian passport.


There is another innovation in the new passport which has given rise to a wave of indignation — the passport is monolingual. Many people pointed out that, even under Stalin and Brezhnev, passports were in two languages. The recommendations of Russian legislators to make notations in other languages on a supplementary sheet inserted in the new passport, which would be prepared by the republics themselves, was taken as an affront to national dignity. Tatarstani parliamentarians insisted that the text of the Constitution of Tatarstan relating to the republic’s two official languages — Russian and Tatar — should be included in Russian passports issued to residents of Tatarstan. This, in their opinion, should also apply to the other republics of the Russian Federation, while the note on the official languages should be made, not on some kind of insert, but on the pages of the passport itself.

In the course of the discussion, it was said that the absence in the passport of notes in languages other than Russian means that people are being deprived of the right to their name. In the Tatar language, for example, there are a number of letters which do not exist in the Russian alphabet, and some Tatar names consist entirely of these letters. This also applies to geographic names.

The result of the debate was that the Tatarstani parliament voted to suspend the issue of the new Russian passport in Tatarstan until the disputed questions had been resolved. The State Council of the Republic of Tatarstan recommended that the government of the Russian Federation include a special page in the passport indicating, in the official languages of the republics, the bearer’s last name, first name, patronymic, date and place of birth, and republican citizenship. A place should also be provided for the bearer to indicate his or her nationality, if he or she so desires. On the upper part of these pages, there should be a depiction of the republic’s coat of arms. From the text of the resolution, it is clear that, contrary to most of the speakers’ proposals, the introduction of the new Russian passports into the republic will not be made directly dependent on the passage of a Tatarstani law on citizenship or the introduction of republic passports. The debate nonetheless prompted republic legislators to work on these questions, and one of the points of the resolution demands that the Tatarstani draft law on citizenship be examined in December 1997.

Translated by Mark Eckert

Gulnara Khasanova is assistant professor of sociology in the Education Department at Kazan Chemical-Technological University.


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