Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Soviet-Style Passport Nationality Returning to Russia via the Backdoor

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 7 -- Proposals to restore the nationality line in Russian passports and other official documents have sparked sharp debates between those who remember the ways in which Soviet officials used that line to discriminate against Jews and other minorities and those both ethnic Russian and non-Russian who say such lines can help them maintain their nations.

            Now, as increasingly happens with controversial ideas from the Soviet past, the Russian government, in an obvious effort to avoid public debate, is in effect re-introducing the nationality line via the backdoor by asking people to declare their nationality when they register key events in their lives such as marriage, divorce and death.

            Beginning in April, state registration offices will ask citizens filing documents on these occasions what their nationality is. The exact procedures are still being worked out, officials say, but given the sensitivity of the issue and the ways in which the authorities may limit or use such declarations, some are beginning to ask questions about what this will mean.

            Yesterday, Svetlana Bolotnikova of the BigCaucasus.com portal provided a discussion of the reasons for the new measure and a survey of experts from the North Caucasus on how they see the new “nationality line” working (bigcaucasus.com/events/actual/06-01-2014/88631-national-0/).

            As she noted, officials are convinced that they need such data.  According to the explanation of this latest action provided by the government, the measure “will allow an assessment of the influence of social-demographic characteristics” and “the carrying out of effective measures of an active demographic policy.”

            Moreover, Bolotnikova continued, “after the mass actions of nationalists in Biryulevo, Pugachev and other Russian cities, it is not a matter of indifference what the nationalities are of those who live, marry, give birth and die in the regions of Russia.” But the real issues are how voluntary the provision of such data will be and how what is collected.

            As Bolotnikova pointed out, most ethnic Russians support the idea of returning a nationality line to passports and other documents, but according to polls, 60 percent of non-Russians in the North Caucasus and especially Chechens, Ingushes and Daghestanis are opposed to such a step.

            Those against “a return of ‘the fifth line’ in the passport” believe that the government should not be allowed to collect such data lest it be in a position to discriminate against some of its citizens, she wrote.

                Bolotnikova spoke with five people involved with this issue for their views.  Andrey Dudinov, a Russian nationalist who has sought the prosecution of Chechens for the murder of an ethnic Russian, said that the restoration of the nationality line is “absolutely necessary” under current conditions.

            Vladimir Karatayev, the head of the Union of Slavs of Adygeya, agrees. He argues that a nationality line is an effective defense against efforts by “’the Kremlin elders’ to make people ‘soviet’ or ‘[non-ethnic] Russian” and thus ensure the preservation of the cultures and languages of the indigenous peoples.

            Vladimir Pisarenko, head of the North Osetin section of the Congress of Russian Communities, says that all peoples of the Caucasus should welcome this step and additional ones to restore the nationality line in passports because the will allow for the better regulation of migration and thus reduce ethnic clashes.

            But Naima Neflyasheva, a scholar at the Center for Civilizational and Regional Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that requiring declarations of nationality in registration documents is “absolutely senseless” especially because at least in principle it will be “voluntary” and because the state already has this information via the census.

            And Zagidi Makhmudov, the director of Makhachkala’s Institute for Social and Humanitarian Research, says that he doesn’t understand why the collection of such data should be limited to registration offices  “Rosstat and sociological centers in the Academy of Sciences and universities” represent “a whole empire” of institutions should be involved.

            Limiting such data collection to ZAGs alone, he said, opens up the opportunity “for games” with the data and its use.

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