New Bill Toughens Citizenship Rules

The State Duma has given preliminary approval to a new presidential bill on citizenship that critics say will cause problems for migrants and former Soviet citizens who hope to obtain Russian passports.

The bill, passed in a first reading Thursday with a vote of 273-117, increases the period of time a foreigner must live in Russia before being able to apply for citizenship from three years to five.

It also stipulates that Russian nationals who receive citizenship from another country are allowed to retain their Russian citizenship; however, foreigners who want to become Russian citizens must officially renounce any other citizenship, except for those people who were born on Russian territory or had Soviet citizenship.

Exceptions to the five-year rule can be made for several categories of people: those who had Soviet citizenship; have been married to a Russian citizen for at least three years; those who have a child -- biological or adopted -- who is a Russian citizen; those who are granted political asylum or refugee status; or those who have "great achievements" or professional skills that Russia needs.

But the bill does not specify what kind of exceptions can be made and how short the minimum residency period can be.

The bill also abolishes the more or less automatic procedure of "recognizing" Russian citizenship used by many people from the former Soviet republics.

According to Lev Levinson, an aide to State Duma Deputy Sergei Kovalyov, existing legislation says that any citizen of the former Soviet Union who lived on Russian territory in 1992 has the right to receive Russian citizenship automatically.

Under the new bill, Levinson said, these applicants would have to undergo the full procedure for receiving citizenship.

However, the draft law does allow those who were born on Russian territory or were Soviet citizens to apply for citizenship regardless of how long they have lived in Russia.

Presenting the bill to the Duma on Thursday, presidential representative Alexander Kotenkov said harsher measures were needed since "many among those who apply for Russian citizenship are on international wanted lists," Interfax reported.

But Levinson argued that people with criminal ties would always find the money and connections to circumvent the bans.

"What we get is anti-migration legislation, and I don't think that's good for Russia at the moment," Levinson said.

Levinson said the bill conformed to European standards, but added that it was "out of touch with the Russian social situation" -- a reference to demographic problems such as a rapidly dwindling population, as well as the uncertain situation of many former Soviet citizens.

He said critics of the bill would fight for a transition period before the new law comes into effect.

The bill also stipulates that Russian nationals with dual or multiple citizenship would be regarded by the government as Russian subjects.