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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Liberals Angered by New Citizenship Bill

The State Duma has approved a new presidential bill that will dramatically toughen regulations for migrants and former Soviet citizens who want to obtain a Russian passport.

The bill, which increases the period of time a foreigner must live in Russia before being able to apply for citizenship from three years to five, scraped through Wednesday in the key second reading by 235 to 177 votes, with 226 needed for passage.

Although deputies rejected most of the 220 amendments submitted since the bill was approved in its first reading in October, those amendments that were passed made the bill more severe than the original draft submitted by President Vladimir Putin and infuriated liberal Duma deputies.

Among the amendments to be passed is a requirement for foreigners seeking Russian citizenship to take exams in the Russian language and to demonstrate their knowledge of the Russian Constitution. They must also have a residency permit valid for the five years that they have spent in the country -- something that most foreigners do not have.

Another key amendment made from the first reading was that former Soviet citizens were taken off a list of categories exempted from the new five-year rule -- a move that some deputies described as a "betrayal."

The exempted categories of people are: those married to Russian citizens for at least three years; those who have a child, biological or adopted, who is a Russian citizen; those who have "great achievements" or professional skills that Russia needs; and those who are granted refugee status.

People falling into these categories need only have resided in Russia for one year to apply for citizenship.

Liberals warned that the new legislation requiring residency permits will only succeed in increasing corruption among officials involved in processing citizenship applications.

Boris Nadezhdin, deputy head of the Duma's Union of Right Forces faction, said the amendment will lead to the arbitrary rule of bureaucrats. The application period will increase from five to eight years, he added.

Deputies supporting the bill defended the tougher regulations, saying ahead of the vote that the new measures are needed to prevent applicants with criminal ties from obtaining Russian citizenship.

"Russia is not a revolving door," Gennady Raikov, head of the People's Deputy faction, was quoted by Interfax as saying.

During the discussion on whether former Soviet citizens should be given the right to go through a simplified procedure of obtaining citizenship, Raikov's deputy, Vadim Bulavinov, went even further than his boss. Bulavinov said Russia should not be turned into "a vacuum cleaner sucking up criminals, scoundrels and beggars."

But it was the requirement for applicants to speak Russian that infuriated liberals the most.

Deputies from the Union of Right Forces in particular slammed the provision, saying it offered no explanation of how Russian-language knowledge should be gauged or of who will examine the applicants.

"Under this criteria, Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin would not get citizenship," Nadezhdin said, referring to the former prime minister infamous for mangling the Russian language.

"Since when have Interior Ministry officials become experts in the Russian language?" said Irina Khakamada, a deputy speaker in the Duma, in an interview with ORT television.

Tatyana Kholshchevnikova, a legal adviser to the Duma's committee on state structures, described the Russian-language provision as shameful.

"This is not like Russia, the country that slams Baltic countries for the same national-language regulations," she said.

Kholshchevnikova added that the original draft was "spoiled" by the Russian-language and residency-permit amendments, which were submitted by pro-Kremlin deputies Valery Grebennikov and Nikolai Ovchinnikov.

Sergei Mitrokhin of the liberal Yabloko faction said Russia's shrinking population and a brain drain meant the country could not afford the passage of anti-migrant laws.

"We are not a rich country like Switzerland -- we need human resources," he said.

The new legislation will replace the 1991 law on citizenship, which in some provisions contradicts the Constitution adopted in 1993.