Russia and the politics of citizenship

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

One less-noted aspect regarding the events taking place in the Crimea is the role that citizenship has played in the conflict. In the Washington Post this morning, there's a small piece by Eric Lohr on a phenomenon that I've mentioned a couple of times in this blog:

According to existing Russian law and generally accepted international practice, citizenship is normally granted only to individuals residing within the country. However, the Russian Federation has waived the normal residence requirements and waiting periods before to naturalize populations outside its borders. In the Georgian territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia allowed thousands of natives of the region to naturalize by expedited procedures during a controversial naturalization drive in the summer of 2002 and sporadically afterwards, then expanded this program during and after the war. According to the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, this provided a justification for intervention (to protect “Russian citizens”) and a legal means to meld the regions into the Russian sphere after Russia recognized the two areas as independent states (a recognition that the rest of the world has not endorsed).

It's an interesting issue, and there now are indeed reports that, as was the case with Abkhazia, Russian officials have been distributing passports in Ukraine for some time. These reports correspond with older rumors that such a practice was indeed taking place.

This is actually a subject that I'm somewhat interested in, given my interests in things Borderland. Way back when I was still in graduate school I published an article which, among other things, looked at the role of citizenship in diplomatic battles taking place between Russian and Ottoman bureaucrats.. In particular, these government officials were jousting over the question of which government held authority over Muslims who were recognized as citizens by both empires.
19th century map of Russia, the Ottoman Empire and the Crimea

How was it possible for Muslims to be de facto dual citizens of both Russia and the Ottoman Empire? That's a bit complicated. The thing to remember is that, in the 19th century, both Russia and the Ottoman Empire needed people. They were industrializing, needed people to grow food and produce other labor that would help these states develop.

Russia, meanwhile, had an enormous Muslim population--up to 20 million at the beginning of the 20th century--that exceeded the numbers of Muslims living in both Iran and the Ottoman Empire at the time. For a variety of reasons--war, forced expulsion, economic factors, family reasons, etc.--Muslims left Russia at various times between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. This was especially the case regarding the Crimea, where there was an enormous exodus of Muslim Tatars both after Crimea's annexation to Russia in 1783 and after the Crimean War ended in 1856. But even during times of peace, there was usually a trickle of Muslim emigration that could quickly turn into a flood. Such was the case in 1902, for example, when about 30-40,000 Crimean Tatars (out of a grand total of less than 200,000 still living in the peninsula) left for the Ottoman Empire in the span of just a few months.

The Ottoman government welcomed these people in and created a government institution called the Refugee Commission ('Muhacirin Komisyonu') to help settle them in regions of the empire that needed development. The Russian government, meanwhile, sought to keep these refugees from leaving, and used both force and persuasion to get their way. While a lot of people think that the Russian imperial government displayed unremitting force in attempting to get Muslims to leave Russia, in fact the situation was a bit analogous to that of Jewish refuseniks living in the later Soviet period. The Russian government may not have especially loved these Muslims, but nevertheless didn't want them to leave. Their value to development was simply too important to risk the occurrence of another destabilizing population exodus.

Early 20th century letter written by a Muslim from the southern Caucasus
(today's Azerbaijan) describing settlement in the Ottoman Empire

In fact, even Muslims who left Russia for good and lived in the Ottoman Empire for decades continued to be recognized by the Russian government as Russian subjects. This status gave options to these de facto dual citizens, especially if they ran into trouble in the Ottoman Empire. Thanks to Russia's treaty rights with the Ottoman Empire, Russian subjects were often able to avoid Ottoman jurisdiction in courts and laws. Russian Muslims who had thought they had left Russia for good and become Ottoman subjects nevertheless invoked their Russian citizenship if they got arrested, conscripted or found themselves in some other jam vis-a-vis the Ottoman authorities.

Russian authorities working in the foreign ministry, meanwhile, would almost always back up the claims of these people to be Russian citizens. Why would the Russians do this? It gave them yet another lever of authority over the Ottomans. Think of it--hundreds of thousands of Muslims had left Russia for the Ottoman Empire in the second half of the 19th century. What if all of those people were actually Russians, living within the boundaries of the Ottoman state? During an era of relative peace between Russia and the Ottoman Empire--the lack of fighting between 1878 and 1914 was the longest such break since the 17th century--war was fought by other means. Such was the politics of citizenship.

Today, we see the politics of citizenship taking place once again. The Russian government has explained that it has acted in order to 'protect Russian citizens.'

And Russia has citizens all over the place in the rest of the USSR. I wonder what's going through the heads of people in the Baltic republics, Kazakhstan, Moldova and other places with large concentrations of Russians, many of whom may well have been given Russian passports in recent years. For them, the politics of citizenship can look perilous indeed.


Also see:

The Crimea: More Than Just a War

More Thoughts on the Crimea

Crimea on the Brink: What's Going On?

South Ossetia and the Fate of the Mini-Republics

More thoughts on South Ossetia

Obama, Russia and the Middle East

Trouble in Ukraine

Beating the War Drums Again


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