Selling Passports In Chechnya

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 14

On the wall of a crowded bus shelter in Grozny, surrounded by other handwritten announcements, is posted the following: “I can get you a passport for foreign travel. Contact Aminat at…”

Two women who have just read that advertisement are discussing it. One says, “If I had a passport like that I’d go to Turkey and buy leather goods. You can bring them back here and sell them for a nice profit. But what guarantee is there that this Aminat person is not a con artist who will simply run off with your money?”

“Yes,” replies the other woman, “someone I know spent six months trying get her money back from a travel agency that never gave her the passport they had promised. She finally had to get the men of her family involved.”

In today’s Grozny this is too timely a subject to be ignored. Other people waiting for the bus join the conversation. One says, “Russian law supposedly has been in effect here for five years–but we don’t have even the elementary right to a state document which any Russian citizen can get in other places. So much for ‘the restoration of constitutional order.'”

“When Maskhadov was in power,” says another, “you could actually get a passport for foreign travel. The passport agency didn’t have much money but it functioned–and it worked in close cooperation with Moscow. After all, Ichkeria did not have passports of its own.”

The conversation turns to exchanging advice and rumors: How to get around the existing restrictions on foreign travel documents, which services are least expensive.

“I’ve been invited twice in the last year on foreign trips–to Germany and to Egypt,” says someone. “I really needed these trips as a journalist, but I just couldn’t go; I got hung up on the lack of the proper document. A Chechen is simply unable to receive a foreign travel passport legally, by simply applying to the official agency. And I don’t care to pay bribes–first because I’m not rich, and second just as a matter of principle. I just hope that the top officials in Moscow who took away our legal right to travel will think again and do something about it.” The speaker turns out to be Aza Gazieva, the well-known Chechen journalist who also works for the Kadyrov government’s ministry of mass media.

The Russian authorities have created in Chechnya a problem which is impossible either to explain or to solve. Ever since the fall of 1999, when the second Chechen war began, the people of Chechnya have in effect been deprived of the right to travel outside Russia. Residing or studying abroad, taking business trips or performance tours, participating in international forums or art exhibits–these are opportunities open to Russians of all eighty-nine provinces, except Chechnya. Here it takes superhuman efforts to get a passport even when it is a matter of life or death. The passport and visa service, which here as in other regions is part of the local ministry of internal affairs, has lost one of its basic functions–the granting of foreign passports. This violation of their rights is a serious hardship for thousands of people.

The Kadyrov government’s deputy minister for labor and social programs, Kemsi Makhmudova, described how a humanitarian organization recently appealed to her ministry. Its representatives were trying to help some Chechen children travel abroad for medical treatment that they could not possibly receive within Russia. Thanks to foreign charity, these unfortunate children were being given a chance to survive. But to take advantage of that chance they needed passports, and passports just are not issued in Chechnya.

Those who live elsewhere in Russia, or abroad, simply cannot understand how in Chechnya such a simple transaction–applying for and receiving a document to which everyone supposedly has a legal right–turns into a colossal problem that is virtually impossible to solve. The only exception to this vicious rule comes just once a year, when some Chechens are allowed to join other Muslims from Russia for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

“Just before the hajj, the federal interior ministry assigns to Chechnya a specific number of blank forms for passports,” said police Colonel Ruslan Abdulaev, deputy head of the Kadyrov administration’s passport and visa service. “This year we received 1,000 of these forms–500 through Northern Ossetia and another 500 through Stavropol region.” He said that his agency has been appealing to Moscow every year since 2001 for help in restoring its own functions: “We have even written to the prime minister–but without results.”

The human rights organization Memorial has also tried to help especially needy Chechens get the necessary documents for travel. Sometimes it has actually succeeded, by appealing through the government agencies of Ingushetia. For example, two years ago a girl from Grozny wanted to escape abroad. Her very life was in danger because of her eyewitness testimony against Russian soldiers who had committed atrocities against civilians in the village of Aldy. Getting a passport for her required the personal intervention of a federal Duma deputy–the prominent human rights advocate Sergei Kovalev–who appealed personally to Ruslan Aushev, then president of Ingushetia. The girl was finally able to accept the invitation of an American family, and she is now safe in the United States.

But according to the Memorial activists, such success stories are very rare. They confirmed that in order to get a foreign passport one usually has to turn to the unofficial channels run by doubtful individuals such as Aminat. This of course gives rise to a perfectly logical question: How do such private individuals manage to carry out a state function which is otherwise forbidden?

A friend named Salamu answers that question for me: “In fact, the unofficial channel operates on a completely legal basis. The only thing that’s illegal is the amount of money it charges: ten times the official fee.” Salamu explains to me that these private individuals operate merely as intermediaries between their customers and the state passport and visa service. The existing ban on issuing passports through the normal channel, without such intermediaries, is against the law–but this is one of the many laws in Russia that are routinely violated. Salamu is one of the few people who have actually succeeded via the normal channel. He forced the local bureaucrats to give him a passport by appealing to a court and citing his right as a Russian citizen to freedom of movement. But unlike most people, Salamu is a lawyer by training.

The Russian government’s executive order of August 15, 1996, on the rules for entering or leaving the territory of the Russian Federation, is still in full effect. Any resident of Chechnya can use this executive order’s procedures to get a temporary residence permit from the interior ministry of any region in Russia. This Chechen will then automatically turn out to be within the sphere of the constitution, and suddenly will find that he has all the rights of any other Russian citizen. This is the executive order that the “illegal” channels use in order to bypass the existing ban on passport services for applicants within Chechnya.

The “unofficial” nature of these services makes them much more expensive. The official fee for a passport for foreign travel from the state agency is supposedly just US$10. But to get such a passport through private channels will cost you US$200 or more. That is a gigantic sum for Chechens, most of whom are unemployed, or perhaps have jobs that pay around US$40-$50 a month.

So in practice, the official organs of the interior ministry are in fact granting passports to Chechens–but only to those who can afford to pay these illegal fees. The Russian authorities’ ban has merely enabled dishonest bureaucrats to set up a “commercial channel” for clients with money but without the persistence and professional knowledge of my friend Salamu–and also without the spare time that he had while living as a refugee in Ingushetia.

Another acquaintance, a writer named Vakha, decided at the height of the second war that he and his family should flee as refugees to western Europe. At that time a passport cost US$500. The family had to sell their car, their only possession that had survived the bombing of Grozny.

Equipping myself with all the official and unofficial advice that I had learned about how to get a passport, I visited the passport and visa service of Ingushetia. At the building’s entrance there was posted an announcement for people like me, informing us that services to people seeking temporary residence permits had been temporarily halted. I found a bureaucrat who said curtly, “Soon this agency will begin to work within Chechnya, and you will be able to get your passport there.” But at the same time, the unofficial channels were functioning without any limits. In the marketplace I had no difficulty in finding several women vying with one another to sell their services (this is a highly competitive business). “If you want to travel soon, within a month, it will cost more–$400,” one told me. “But if you have more time it will be only $250.”

In practice, thousands of Chechens are traveling abroad–for study, for business and so on. Moscow’s limitations on travel apply only to the poor.