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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Court Takes Step Toward Dismantling Propiskas

The Constitutional Court made another step toward abolishing the widely condemned propiska, or residency permit, system this week when it declared several aspects of the system unconstitutional.

But the court's ruling is not decisive: Many registration rules issued by federal and local governments, which in fact constitute the system, are yet to be abolished.

In response to a suit from the administration of the Nizhny Novgorod region, the Constitutional Court ruled Monday that local authorities are obliged to register anyone applying for a residency permit, except in certain restricted parts of the country.

Under current law, local authorities could -- and often did -- refuse to register people applying for a permit.

Though the Constitutional Court is Russia's highest legal body, its ruling will do little to affect the propiska system on the ground. All the rules and regulations, issued by local authorities on the basis of the federal government's 1995 regulation on residency registration, have to be "duly abolished," in line with the court's ruling. So far no deadline has been set for the abolition of these regulations.

The residency permit system was originally established in the 18th century to tie serfs down to their lords' land. It has survived largely intact despite the abolition of serfdom in 1861, the Communist Revolution in 1917 and the emergence of democratic Russia in 1991.

Russia's constitution guarantees citizens' right to free movement within the country but the propiska system is still used by many regions in Russia, including Moscow, as a means to keep out undesirable newcomers.

Without a residency permit, a person cannot be legally employed and forfeits rights to social benefits. Local authorities can also eject someone from a town if they are not registered there. Obtaining a propiska commonly involves cutting through large amounts of red tape and often the payment of official and unofficial fees to officials.

Human rights organizations have long pressed the Russian government to abolish the propiska system.

"The propiska as a system has no place in modern Russia," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division.

According to the Constitutional Court's decision, the only limitations on registration are specified in the federal law on freedom of movement and include border zones, enclosed military settlements and territories with emergency or epidemic situations.

The court ruled that the government and local authorities have no right to impose their own additional limitations.

The practice of giving out temporary permits for periods of no longer than six months was also declared unconstitutional by the court. That restriction leads to "intrusion by administrative organizations ... into civil, housing and other legal relationships," the court said in its ruling.

Russian citizens have the right to be registered for however long they wish to spend away from their permanent home, the court said.

Last week, the Constitutional Court ruled that citizens had the right to receive passports without having to prove that they had a propiska.