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Passportization: Putin’s Tool for a Soft Power Conquest

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall before a meeting of the Victory Organizing Committee at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 17, 2015. The meeting focuses on preparations for celebrating the 70th anniversary of the victory in World War II.  (Photo by SERGEI ILNITSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall before a meeting of the Victory Organizing Committee at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 17, 2015. The meeting focuses on preparations for celebrating the 70th anniversary of the victory in World War II. (Photo by SERGEI ILNITSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

EU Visa-Free Travel Could be Georgia and Ukraine’s Counter-Weapon to Russia’s Passportization Policy

by Maia Otarashvili*

Russia has used and will likely continue to use its passportization policy to justify its meddling in other countries’ affairs.The word “passportization” is a direct translation from the Russian “pasportizatsia,” which can mean “introduction of the passport system for the population” or “implementation of certification.” One prominent Russian journalist, Anton Orekh, more artfully defines passportization as a “dangerous bacteria.” Orekh, who is critical of the Putin government, pinpoints the process of passportization as a dangerous trend that can be used in order to justify military conflicts; Russia feels that it has the right to protect the physical safety of its citizens at home and abroad. If there are enclaves of countries where Russian passport-holders live in large groups (for example South Ossetia), then Russia might be emboldened to stage military interventions if it believes that those groups of Russian passport holders are in physical danger. This rationale was used as Russia’s justification for the Georgia-Russia war of 2008. That war ended up sparking an international debate on the legalities of military intervention, and brought up issues like the fact that many Russian passport-holders reside in European countries like Estonia and Latvia. The most worrisome possibility here would be Russia’s use of the same excuse to attack these NATO member-states, which would inevitably lead to a large-scale military escalation in the region.

Thus, passportization is a type of soft power tool that Russia has used in its “near abroad” for years, but is it possible for other countries to use the same tool against Russia’s interests, or for the advancement of their own interests? The European Union’s eastward visa-liberalization policy has certainly opened up this possibility for countries like Georgia and Ukraine, whose territories have been the primary subjects of the Russian passportization policy.

How Does Russian Passportization Work?

In contemporary publications, the term “passportization” tends to appear mostly in connection with Russia’s relations with Georgia and Ukraine. A 2010 OSCE report on human rights in the “occupied territories” of Georgia mentions the term forced “passportization” in context of Abkhazia and South Ossetia:

“The process and dynamics of granting Russian citizenship to persons residing in the occupied territories of Georgia, the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia and Abkhazia can properly be described as the process of illegal passportization of the remaining population of these two regions of Georgia, designed and implemented as a significant component of Russia’s creeping annexation of these regions.”

After the dissolution of the USSR, Russia’s citizenship laws had to be drafted in a way that would accommodate the unusual circumstances of many Russians permanently living outside the borders of post-Soviet Russia. These individuals were essentially left stateless; after the fall of the USSR, while they identified as Russian, they turned out to be living in now former USSR member states, which had become “abroad” for Russia, practically overnight. But the process of obtaining Russian citizenship was so complex that it left many Russians living abroad entirely without citizenship (many of the individuals who experienced this dilemma live in Latvia and Estonia, among other post-communist countries).

However, after 2002, Russia simplified its citizenship laws, making it very easy for those “stateless” Russians to obtain Russian citizenship without going to Russia in order to obtain it, and without the requirement to actually reside in Russia. According to Peter Roudik, a senior foreign law specialist the Library of Congress, the application process was simplified even further for people living in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions (otherwise known as Russia-backed de-facto states, or frozen conflict zones).

“[A]nd people could apply even without leaving their homes… [because] Russian nationalist non-governmental organizations with close ties to Russian officialdom simply took their [the South Ossetians’] papers to a nearby Russian city for processing. Reportedly, following this regulation, up to 90 percent of South Ossetia’s population of under 100,000 [people] used this opportunity to acquire Russian citizenship, and a special series of Russian travel passports was designated for issuance in South Ossetia.”

It is important to note that not all of the individuals who obtained Russian passports en masse were ethnic Russians, and, reportedly, this passportization policy in Abkhazia and South Ossetia was particularly geared towards the non-Russian population.

Thus, from early 2000s on, Georgian and Ukrainian leaders began to widely use the term “passportization.” The term gained popularity after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. It had even appeared in English-language mainstream media, such as a New York Times articles by Paul Goble. One of these articles from 2008 even quotes then-Ukrainian Foreign Minister expressing concerns over Russian passportization in Crimea:

“Not surprisingly, many leaders of the countries neighboring Russia began to ask whether Moscow would use such a passport strategy against them. The Ukrainian foreign ministry, for example, has regularly warned that ‘in Crimea a general Russian passportization is gaining ground.’”

Currently, there is no accurate statistical data available on exactly how many Ukrainians (in Crimea and now in Donbas), Abkhazians, and South Ossetians hold Russian passports. According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, by 2015, it had issued over 31,000 passports to the residents of South Ossetia. It should be noted that these passports grant full-fledged Russian citizenship to these populations, and allow them to vote in Russian elections, as well as participate in the Russian welfare system (i.e. receive Russian pensions and healthcare).

TBILISI, GEORGIA - SEPTEMBER 01:  Georgians gather for a peace rally held in Republic Square on September 1, 2008 in Tbilisi, Georgia. Rallies were held simultaneously across Georgia with protestors forming a human chain in Tbilisi in a display of Georgian solidarity in response to Russia's military action in Georgia and its recognition of sovereignty of breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  (Photo by Cliff Volpe/Getty Images)
TBILISI, GEORGIA – SEPTEMBER 01: Georgians gather for a peace rally held in Republic Square on September 1, 2008 in Tbilisi, Georgia. Rallies were held simultaneously across Georgia with protestors forming a human chain in Tbilisi in a display of Georgian solidarity in response to Russia’s military action in Georgia and its recognition of sovereignty of breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. (Photo by Cliff Volpe/Getty Images)

Passportization to Reopen Dialogue?

Now that the European Union has given visa-free travel to Georgia and is in the midst of activating the same deal for Ukraine, it is important to define where the breakaway territories of these countries fit into this equation. Will the residents of Crimea, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia benefit from Ukraine’s and Georgia’s euro-integration? And if so, how?

For example, the Georgian government is now attempting to use passportization as a means of charting a new course towards reconciliation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It has announced that it will be offering Georgian biometric passports to Abkhazians and South Ossetians so that they, too, can enjoy the benefits of visa free travel to Europe. In theory, the Georgian government has the upper hand in this situation—if these individuals accept Georgian passports for the sake of access to Europe, then they’d have to give up their Russian passports. Currently, the European governments bar the issuance of Schengen visas to those “holding a Russian passport that reside in regions currently occupied by Moscow, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula.” Essentially, these individuals can only have access to Europe or Russia, but not both. They may obtain Schengen (EU) visas by first obtaining Georgian or Ukrainian passports in order to enjoy visa-free travel (in case of Georgia). If Georgia and Ukraine decide to start a massive campaign offering passports to the residents of these disputed territories, and properly promoting the benefits of the visa-free travel, they may have a counter-weapon to Russia’s passportization policy. The success of this possibility will depend on a number of factors. These governments will have to handle the matter of passportization smoothly and diplomatically. They must find a peaceful and welcoming way to offer the public service of granting passports, and make the process pain-free. So far Georgia has done an exemplary job of reforming its public service offices, and Ukraine is well-underway towards achieving the same. Moreover, the EU visa-free travel deal must be implemented without a hitch, and must yield mutual benefits for the involved parties, so that the possibility of greater access to the West via the closer relationship to the EU becomes a major incentive for the breakaway territories to reopen dialogue. Currently, access to Russia is the great incentive that keeps the residents of the breakaway territories motivated to either wish to join Russia, or live under its “protection.” Russia has been pouring large sums of money into these territories in form of military and development aid and loans, as well as all the benefits a Russian citizen would receive from the state: for passport-holders that means Russian-funded healthcare and pensions, as well as opportunities to travel to Russia and work and study there. These benefits are arguably more enticing than those the Georgian and Ukrainian governments can offer at the moment. Thus, if Russia’s funding of these de-facto states dwindles down due to Russia’s lack of resources (the Russian GDP is just now regaining positive growth for the first time since the recent recession), this could also help eliminate that lucrative alternative to Westernization in the form of Russian welfare system and development aid.

Thus Georgia and Ukraine have a long way to go before they can successfully duplicate or imitate the Russian passportization policy, but it is a soft-power tool they are seriously considering. This is yet another way through which the EU’s visa-liberalization policy can have an important role in building peace in Eastern Europe.

*Maia Otarashvili is Research Fellow and Program Manager of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. She holds an MA in Globalization, Development, and Transitions from the University of Westminster in London, UK. Her current research is focused on the post-communist countries of the Eurasia region, including the Black Sea and Caucasus states.

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