Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Free Travel Means Access To Passports

One of the oldest chestnuts of the Cold War was the fact that Soviet citizens did not have the right to travel abroad freely. In fact, this came to be seen as one of the key differences between the free West and the enslaved Communist world.

Nearly three years ago, however, the Soviet Union collapsed, the borders were thrown open and every Russian was guaranteed to right to travel -- or at least that is how it was supposed to be.

Reality has, as usual, turned out to be more complicated. For one thing, Russians have found that the Western countries that for so long beckoned them so alluringly to defect suddenly became pretty stingy about handing out visas even to go on holiday.

But an even larger roadblock to free travel has been set up by the Russian government. Three years after the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia became a fully fledged state in its own right, the authorities are still issuing passports that say "U.S.S.R." rather than Russia on the cover, and most Russians cannot even get these.

In May 1993, the government invalidated the old Soviet passports and transferred responsibility for issuing new ones from the Foreign Ministry to the Interior Ministry. The argument for this step was that the Interior Ministry could handle the huge demand more efficiently, especially in the area of security clearances to screen out people who had "secrets" they might carry abroad.

All too soon, however, it became evident that security checks, rather than speed, were the Interior Ministry's forte, and the Foreign Ministry's authority to issue passports was extended to keep things moving.

Inevitably this arrangement led to a bureaucratic turf war between the two ministries that went public last weekend when a Foreign Ministry official and the chief of the Federal Counterintelligence Service sharply criticized the Interior Ministry on television.

Interior, the two claimed, was causing delays by requiring the counterintelligence service to perform needless background checks on about 50,000 passport applicants each month. There must be something to these complaints if even the former KGB is complaining about having to do the checks.

The bottom line, though, is that people are waiting for months to receive their travel documents, unnecessarily delaying or ruining their business trips and holidays.

And what is an Interior Ministry doing in the passport business anyhow? Is it just by coincidence that in virtually every other country passports are the prerogative of the foreign ministries? The Interior Ministry's involvement sounds more like a holdover from the days when Soviet citizens had internal passports and the state's aim was to restrict, rather than facilitate, private travel abroad.