In 2022, Russia plans to implement a new law that will give various Russian speakers, including Ukrainians and Belarusians, a right to return to their ‘historical homeland’ and acquire Russian citizenship through a simplified procedure. The bill ‘On Repatriation to the Russian Federation’ was submitted to the State Duma on 11 June. The law aims to support Russian ‘compatriots’ living abroad by protecting their interests and preserving their Russian cultural identity as well as to prevent their assimilation, primarily in ‘states whose laws and practices create problems for […] the national rights and interests of Russian compatriots’ (sootechestvinniki).
Russia’s repatriation policy is not new: there were state resettlement programmes aimed at attracting Russian speakers from former Soviet states in the 1990s and 2006, but compared with these previous programmes, the new bill marks a change with far-reaching impacts at the national and the international level. In this regard, a new understanding of the term ‘compatriot’ is particularly noteworthy.
Inspired by ethnic repatriation programmes in Germany, Israel, and Kazakhstan, the Russian government’s approach targets millions of ‘compatriots’ who might assert their rights to residence in the ‘historical homeland’. In official national discourses, repatriates are often presented as a reproductive force that can help solve demographic problems and maintain the ethnic composition of the population. However, the Russian programme is based less on ethnicity than on a broader concept of ‘compatriot’.
Who are compatriots?
According to the initiator of Russia’s new bill, member of the State Duma Konstantin Zatulin, compatriots are people who have historically lived on Russian territory and whose direct descendants were born on that territory or have lived there. Specifically, this definition includes not only people who now live in post-Soviet states or have become stateless as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union but also descendants of emigrants from the historical territory of Russia who have acquired the citizenship of a foreign state or become stateless. Under the proposed law, these people may submit a simplified application for Russian citizenship. This broad concept of compatriot potentially expands the circle of those who can apply for Russian citizenship in the future to tens of millions of people.
According to the draft law, the historical territory of Russia comprises regions from different historical periods, such as the ‘Russian State’ (until 1917), 1917–18 Russian Republic, the 1918–20 Russian State, the 1917–22 Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the 1922-91 Soviet Union, and the present-day Russian Federation. Thus, the notion of historical homeland is not limited to the borders of the former Soviet Union.
To identify compatriots, the bill proposes a list of peoples who have historically lived on Russian territory. This includes not only Russians as ‘state-forming’ ethnic groups but also peoples associated with a ‘common historical destiny and culture’, such as Ukrainians and Belarusians, titular ethnic groups as well as numerically small indigenous groups that make up the multi-ethnic Russian Federation, including Russian Germans. In this sense, a controversial form of nation state building is taking place in Russia.
To obtain Russian citizenship, applicants do not have to give up their existing citizenship or live in Russia. In March 2020, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law that automatically recognised Ukrainian and Belarusian citizens as Russian speakers. Thus, individuals who hold Ukrainian or Belarusian passports will be able to participate in this repatriation programme without proof of their Russian-language skills.
While previous programmes addressed Russian-speaking populations in particular, the new bill simply demands that applicants ‘freely use the Russian language in the family, everyday life and the cultural sphere’. Language proficiency is proven not by a certificate but by a check mark in the application and an interview with a consular or ministerial official. This flexible procedure opens up mechanisms for acquiring Russian citizenship that are difficult to control.
The process for obtaining Russian citizenship has become increasingly simplified, especially since 2006, to compensate for negative demographic trends in Russia and to promote economic development in peripheral regions. Since the start of the programme, Russia has made significant progress in attracting compatriots abroad to apply for Russian citizenship.
The mass distribution of Russian passports outside Russia has inevitably been associated with a justification for Moscow’s interventions in unrecognised republics, such as the incursion into Georgia’s breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia during the Russian-Georgian War in 2008. Russia’s military intervention in South Ossetia was supposedly aimed at protecting Russian citizens. However, most of these citizens were ethnic Ossetians, and many had obtained Russian citizenship only months earlier.
The goal of developing Russia’s soft power abroad is the responsibility of the agency Rossotrudnichestvo, which was established in 2008. One of the Russian government’s priorities in creating the agency was to promote a positive image of Russia by introducing new formats for engaging compatriots abroad. Such formats include free educational programmes for young people at Russian universities, trips to Russia for the descendants of emigrants, and developmental programmes.
Repatriation as geopolitical tool
Several nation-states use repatriation to expand their demographic potential and maintain the ethnic composition of their populations. Thus, Russia’s interest in increasing the number of its citizens through legislation and counteracting its long-standing population decline is not an unusual strategy at first glance. However, the new bill includes far-reaching components that would have extensive consequences, not only for the future make-up of the Russian population, but also from a geopolitical point of view.
Initial international reactions to Russia’s repatriation law have expressed concerns about a perceived ‘threat of interference’, in the words of Ukraine’s former foreign minister Pavel Klimkin. Such concerns are not entirely unfounded, as repatriation has been used as a foreign policy tool with imperialist ambitions in the past. Indeed, the main driving force behind the new repatriation law is Russia’s national interest, not high demand from Russian speakers abroad. It remains an open question to what extent the new law will be a real pull factor for the return to Russia.