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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ministry Turf War Entangles Passports

A power struggle between the Foreign and Interior ministries over the right to issue passports has left the vast majority of Russians unable to leave the country despite a 1993 law granting all citizens the right to travel freely, a Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday.


Igor Lyagin-Frolov, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry's consular service, accused the Interior Ministry of struggling to retain its "monopoly" on new passports required for travel abroad by "braking" Foreign Ministry attempts to speed the issuing of the documents.


Lyagin-Frolov said the Interior Ministry had ignored a State Duma recommendation to authorize the Foreign Ministry to help issue passports through January 1996, a move aimed at easing an enormous backlog of requests that has many Russians waiting over four months for travel documents.


An Interior Ministry press spokesman, who asked not to be identified, refused to comment specifically on the charges but said: "If any organization gives out passports other than the one authorized to do so, there will be disorder and all kinds of crime."


Travel policy is a source of growing frustration for the many Russians eager to try out the freedom of movement theoretically granted by the collapse of the Soviet regime, but often thwarted by foreign countries' tight visa regimes and by red tape at home.


A law that took effect in March 1993 aimed to guarantee all Russians the right to unlimited travel abroad, but ironically made travel more difficult for many people by invalidating old passports and requiring every man, woman and child to obtain a new one, Lyagin-Frolov said.


The law transferred passport control from the Foreign Ministry to the Interior Ministry, but the former Supreme Soviet extended the Foreign Ministry's right to issue passports until June 1, 1994 to help speed the process, and the State Duma has since recommended lengthening that period to 1996.


By June, Lyagin-Frolov claims, the Foreign Ministry had issued 500,000 new passports as against the Interior Ministry's 100,000. Even added together this amounts to only a fraction of the country's nearly 150 million population. For most Russians, the right to travel freely remains largely theoretical, because they still hold pre-1993 passports or no foreign passports at all.


The blame-casting heated up Sunday night when Vassily Vinogradov, head of the Foreign Ministry's consular service, and Vladimir Polishuk, head of the Federal Counterintelligence Service's Moscow division, criticized the Interior Ministry on the popular news program Itogi.


Vinogradov painted a warlike scenario between the two ministries, accusing the Interior Ministry of spying on the Foreign Ministry in hopes of catching them selling passports to criminals.Polishuk criticized the Interior Ministry for requiring the Counterintelligence Service, the successor to the KGB, to investigate people requesting passports to make sure they do not possess any state secrets, which he called a waste of time.


Polishuk's spokesman, Sergei Vorobyov, also called the investigations "a violation of human rights" in an interview Tuesday. He said the Counterintelligence Service, which has supposedly broken with the secret police traditions of the KGB, is forced by outdated laws to look over 50,000 applications a month, but acts only as "a middleman."


The service forwards passport requests from would-be travelers who have worked in sensitive industries or government organs to their former employers and relays the employers' verdicts back to the Interior Ministry, which makes the decision, he said.


The process can drag out for months, he said, adding, "What is worst is that people are suffering from this."


Since the Foreign Ministry's passport powers ended June 1, Lyagin-Frolov said, it has received complaints from many Russians unable to go abroad on urgent business trips because of passport delays.


He added that if the Foreign Ministry can regain the right to issue passports, it plans next year for the first time to use covers printed with Russia's golden double-headed eagle instead of the U.S.S.R. logo that still apears on new travel documents issued today.


The newly designed passports would be printed in the United Kingdom, Lyagin-Frolov said, because Gosznak, the official Russian printers of state crests has asked too high a price to develop a new printing press for the eagle.