Annexation by passport

For Russian interests in Ukraine, the humble passport can be as mighty as the sword

March 14, 2014 8:00AM ET
A Russian passport.

In 2008 Russia launched a surprise invasion of the Republic of Georgia. To anyone following the events currently unfolding in Ukraine, Moscow’s justification for intervention in Georgia will sound rather familiar: It was supposedly protecting Russian citizens in the separatist republic of South Ossetia. Most of these Russian citizens, however, were Ossetians, not ethnic Russians, and many had obtained Russian citizenship only months before. They did so through a process known as “passportization,” the mass conferral of Russian citizenship to the citizens of other states. It is a process that, ominously, Russia seems intent on repeating in Ukraine.

Russia has been handing out thousands of passports in Ukraine over the past few years, mostly to ethnic Russians living in the east of the country, as well as in Crimea. Members of Berkut, the now-disbanded special operations forces that were deployed against the Euromaidan protesters in Kiev, have been offered Russian passports, too. Recent reports also indicate that passportization in Crimea has accelerated since the start of the crisis, and Russian lawmakers introduced a bill in late February that is intended to simplify the process of obtaining Russian citizenship.

The escalating tensions caused by Russia’s violations of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, along with the possibility that it might annex Crimea, have understandably overshadowed the seemingly mundane process of distributing passports. But citizenship documents, as ordinary as they might seem, are likely to play an important role in Ukraine’s future.

States are, in theory, allowed to extend citizenship to whoever they please. But passportization exists in something of a legal gray area, because it effectively deprives states of their sovereignty over a significant portion of their population. The ambiguity over the legality of passportization, however, has not prevented Russia from pursuing it in places like Ukraine — and for Ukraine to defensively prohibit dual citizenship. It is partly out of fear of Russian passportization that people who accept citizenship in other states are required to give up their Ukrainian citizenship.

Passport politics

None of this should come as any surprise. Widespread separatist sentiment and occasional talk of irredentism (often a precursor to land grabs) on Russia’s part have led many to view Crimea as one of the potential targets of so-called passport politics. Indeed, not long after the Russian invasion of Georgia, the Ukrainian foreign minister, Volodymyr Ohryzko, stated openly that he believed Russia would someday attempt to pry Crimea away from Ukraine by means of passportization. That prediction appears to be coming true.

Importantly, passportization is not merely a neutral response to the patriotic demands of the pro-Russian element in Crimea. Accepting a Russian passport signifies legal inclusion in the Russian body politic, with everything that that connotes. Distributing Russian passports on the territory of another sovereign state is therefore loaded with political, territorial and legal significance, which the case of Georgia amply demonstrates.

Widespread Russian passportization in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two separatist provinces on Georgia’s border with Russia, began as early as 2002. According to reports at the time, the process itself was remarkably simple: People sent their documents — usually old Soviet passports — to a special Russian Consulate in Sochi. When returned, the passports attested that their bearers were now Russian citizens. At the time, Georgia denounced the process as “creeping annexation.” However, its protests came to very little. By the time the war began in 2008, fully 90 percent of the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had become Russian citizens. So why did this matter?

Passportization in Ukraine has been happening for a long time, and the Russian government is not doing it for the purposes of charity.

The brief answer is that, in the end, and for all its drama, the war itself was just the culmination of a years-long process of attempting to reassert Russian hegemony in Georgia. Passportization was a key component of this project, since what it achieved was the creation of a confusing and treacherous pattern of overlapping sovereignties: The land legally belonged to Georgia, but the population, at least formally, belonged to Russia. Passportization effectively set a tripwire for Russian intervention: Once Georgia moved against South Ossetian separatists (who had become Russian citizens) and attacked the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali (where most of the population consisted of naturalized Russian citizens and much of the government was staffed by operatives dispatched from Moscow), the Russian military (which just happened to be massed on the other side of the border) launched a massive invasion. Vitaly Churkin, then as now Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, argued that Georgian forces were slaughtering Russian civilians and that Russia was therefore obliged to violate Georgia’s territorial integrity to stop the violence against its citizens.

When the shooting stopped, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia were occupied by Russian troops, and Georgia’s borders had been effectively (though not legally) redrawn. In essence, passportization created thousands of Russian citizens inside the internationally recognized borders of Georgia, on whose behalf Moscow justified the territorial dismemberment of its neighbor. The Russian invasion of Georgia was, in a sense, an effect produced by passportization.

Hard sell

The crisis in Ukraine in many ways resembles what transpired in Georgia. However, there are some important differences. Chief among them is the fact that the bitter civil wars in Georgia in the 1990s meant that most Abkhazians and South Ossetians were vehemently opposed to being Georgian citizens in the first place. That meant that persuading them to take Russian passports was not difficult.

By contrast, Crimea is home to sizable ethnic Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar communities, neither of which has any wish to join the Russian Federation. Moreover, it is clear that the desire to join Russia is not universal among the ethnic-Russian majority itself. Achieving the same degree of passportization in Crimea as was possible in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is therefore not realistic.

The situation is even starker in other parts of Ukraine with significant ethnic-Russian populations. Although strong support for Russia exists in some quarters, irredentist sentiment is not ubiquitous. Again, persuading large numbers in these regions to take Russian passports is not likely to occur.

Curiously, none of this has dissuaded Russia from continuing to distribute passports to whoever it can. This is a dangerous game. Moscow’s use of passports to once again destabilize and dismember a neighbor will undoubtedly cause severe concern among other states in the region. Moldova, for instance, faces an unresolved territorial conflict in the Russian-supported separatist republic of Transnistria, where passportization has already occurred. Likewise, Kazakhstan has a large and somewhat disaffected Russian population, which would be a convenient pressure point should Astana reconsider Putin’s “Eurasian Union.”

It’s too early to predict what exactly will happen in Ukraine. What is clear is that passportization in Ukraine is happening, that it has been happening for a long time and that the Russian government is not doing it for the purposes of charity. Whatever ultimately transpires in Crimea, the Russian government will almost certainly use passportization in other parts of Ukraine to destabilize the new government in Kiev. Moscow is already screeching that “Russian citizens” are being persecuted in places like Donetsk.

This is an ominous warning, given that Russia has already granted itself the right to invade Ukraine on their behalf. “Passport politics” may not be as dramatic as tales of “local militias” capturing Crimea, but we should nevertheless not forget that the humble passport can sometimes be as mighty as the sword. 

Vincent Artman is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Kansas. His research focuses on religion and national identity in the Kyrgyz Republic. He has published previously on the topic of passportization in Georgia, and his other research interests include sacred space, territoriality, and genocide. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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