Russia’s Policy Toward Compatriots in the Former Soviet Union

2 march 2008

Igor Zevelev is Doctor of Political Science.

Resume: The official attitude of Moscow toward Russians outside the Russian Federation after the disintegration of the Soviet Union shows quite clearly the victory of pragmatism over the phantoms of imperial heritage. Yet the political rhetoric concerning this issue often has a neo-imperialist tone. It plays a compensatory role in the national consciousness and lays foundations for more resolute actions in the future.

The official attitude of the Russian government toward Russians who found themselves living outside the Russian Federation after the disintegration of the Soviet Union shows quite clearly the victory of pragmatism over the phantoms of imperial heritage. Yet the political rhetoric concerning this issue often has a neo-imperialist tone. It plays a compensatory role in national consciousness and lays foundations for more resolute actions in the future. What causes this coexistence of tough rhetoric and moderate policies? Is there a tendency for potential change in Moscow’s stance on the problem of Russians living in the former Soviet republics?


After the first shocks caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, both public and government attention shifted to inconsistencies between notions of the Russian Federation within its borders, which many considered to be arbitrarily drawn, and the actual domain of Russian culture, language, and national consciousness.

It was believed in 1993 that a possible solution to the problem might be the introduction of dual citizenship. Moscow decided to issue Russian passports to all ethnic Russians living in former Soviet republics, as well as to people from other ethnic groups who had some historical ties to Russia. The solution was not flawless from the viewpoint of international law, since most countries of the world do not endorse dual citizenship. Nonetheless, more than forty countries recognize it as a fact of life, albeit halfheartedly.

Talks between Russia and former Soviet republics over the introduction of dual citizenship did not bring any tangible results. Attempts to use this “vital instrument,” as former foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev called it, materialized only in agreements with Turkmenistan signed in December 1993 (when a Turkmenistan passport was ceremoniously handed to Boris Yeltsin in Ashgabat) and with Tajikistan in September 1995. In reality, Turkmenistan stood in the way of issuing Russian passports to its citizens in every imaginable way and unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in 2003.

In November 2006, the Kyrgyz parliament adopted a new version of the constitution that lifted the ban on dual citizenship and adopted a corresponding law in March 2007. Armenia also adopted a legislative package in 2007 permitting dual citizenship. These moves by Kyrgyzstan and Armenia will probably make it possible for Russia to sign relevant agreements with them in the future.

This means that Moscow has made progress in this sphere only in its relations with those CIS countries that have a small population and small Russian communities. Three quarters of ethnic Russians live in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Lack of progress in resolving the problem of dual citizenship in these areas practically signified the collapse of Russia’s strategy.
Moscow retreated after encountering fierce opposition from other countries, but semi-legal practices of obtaining Russian citizenship that began in former Soviet republics in the early 1990s continue unabated. There is plenty of evidence that there are one to two million people living in the territory of the former Soviet Union who have de facto dual citizenship and are reluctant to report it to the authorities. Russia did little to stop the process. Moreover, starting in 1997, it encouraged de facto dual citizenship.

This continued until 2002 when a new Law on Citizenship restricting this practice was adopted in the Russian Federation. The document specified that a person with a Russian passport should renounce his or her citizenship of another country (Article 13, Clause 1, paragraph “g”). The provision is not retroactive though and does not apply to people who already have dual citizenship. It seemed that Russia had drawn a line, but the problem surfaced again in 2004.

In a bid to ensure electoral victory in Ukraine and to win the hearts of pro-Russian voters, Leonid Kuchma and Victor Yanukovich agreed to draft an agreement on settling the problem of dual citizenship. The prospects for its ratification in Ukraine’s parliament (Verkhovna Rada) and Yanukovich’s personal commitment to this idea remained unclear. Nonetheless, Russian government started drafting the treaty. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, however, made it impossible to implement the plan.

The revival of the dual citizenship idea in 2004 showed that Russia can revert to the issue if favorable conditions emerge. Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in December 2006 that “the international practice of the past several decades” rejects dual citizenship, but the issue may become relevant in the CIS if the latter reaches a level of integration comparable to one in the EU.

On the one hand, governments of the newly independent states have been successful in their resistance to the official introduction of dual citizenship. If they had agreed to conclude relevant treaties, the number of people holding Russian passports would have been much greater than it is now. On the other hand, the post-Soviet countries have practically lost all control over the increasing number of de facto dual citizens on their territories.

It would be premature to argue that the spread of de facto dual citizenship has provided Russia with unquestionable leverage in relations with neighboring states, since most governments do not acknowledge dual citizenship and simply regard individuals with two passports as their citizens. This creates a legal deadlock for any of Russia’s attempts to protect these dual citizens or act in their name. And yet, the large number of people with Russian passports in neighboring states creates additional prerequisites for an increase in Russia’s influence in the future.


Once the attempt to introduce de jure dual citizenship became to fail, a program called Basic Directions of the Russian Federation’s State Policy Toward Compatriots Living Abroad was adopted. Designed originally as a supplement to the more assertive strategy of dual citizenship, this program turned into an independent, if not dominant, guideline, and became the main instrument in that sphere.

De jure dual citizenship had the potential to be converted into a very strong instrument of Russia’s leadership across the region; the program of support to compatriots, by contrast, did not have this potential. However, by considering the Russians living in the ‘near abroad’ not only as members of ethnic minorities residing in other countries, but also as compatriots, Moscow secured the grounds for raising the problem in relation to its neighbors at its own discretion.  Conceptualizing the situation along a ‘Russia/compatriots’ dimension has allowed the Kremlin to address the problems of Russian diasporas in post-Soviet countries as Russia’s internal matter.

Article 1 of the Law on Compatriots Abroad adopted in 1999 (with the most recent amendments made in 2006) defines the term ‘compatriots abroad.’ The notion comprises four categories of people: citizens of the Russian Federation living abroad; individuals that used to have Soviet citizenship; individuals who emigrated from the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation; and descendents of compatriots “with the exception of descendents of individuals representing titular nations of foreign countries.” Article 3 explains that self-identification of former citizens of the Soviet Union as ‘compatriots’ is a matter of personal free choice. It is clear that the notion of ‘compatriots’ applies first and foremost to ethnic Russians, but the Russian authorities refrain from mentioning this directly and include into this category all of the non-titular groups living in the CIS and titular groups retaining their Soviet traits. The post-Soviet generations of titular groups have become strangers for Russia.

Three important documents adopted in the summer of 2006 pointed to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions to continue the moderate course of the previous decade. They were the Program of Work with Compatriots Abroad for 2006-2008, The Russian Language Federal Target Program (2006-2010), and The State Program for Assistance to the Voluntary Resettlement of Compatriots Living Abroad to the Russian Federation. Their interpretation was included in the chapter titled “The Humanitarian Dimension of Foreign Policy” of the Review of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, which the Foreign Ministry published in 2007.

The government earmarked 342 million rubles from the federal budget for the Program of Work with Compatriots Abroad in 2007, and these resources were to be spent mostly on legal defense and social security. The Russian Language Program comes with a total cost of 1.58 billion rubles, including 1.3 billion rubles from the federal budget. Yet the record of action under this program from 2002-2005 does not inspire much optimism. Valery Goreglyad, an auditor at Russia’s Audit Chamber, said a mere 1.3 million rubles, or 3 percent of the 42 million rubles initially set aside, were actually allocated. In comparison, right after the World Congress of Compatriots in October 2006, where Putin spoke about these programs, he turned attention to the daily routine of his native St. Petersburg and made public new projects for investment in the city’s infrastructure to the tune of around 300 billion rubles.

Allocations envisioned in 2007 for the Resettlement Program included 4.6 billion rubles in addition to funding from local budgets, which is obviously far from enough. The program aims, first and foremost, to solve the social and economic problems of Russia’s regions that have an acute workforce shortage. Officials expect that 300,000 or so qualified specialists with families from CIS countries will move to Russia by 2012. In 2007 alone, the authorities hoped to welcome 50,000 people to Russia, but within the first half of the year, only ten families had moved.


The evidence thus far suggests that the most assertive policy toward Russian diasporas (introduction of dual citizenship acknowledged by respective countries) has been a failure, while other initiatives (like strengthening ties with compatriots abroad) have been very modest and moderate in content.

The most radical opponents of the moderate course insist that the Russian nation has been divided and that is has the right to reunite. There were several attempts in the period from 1998 to 2001 to embody such ideas in legislative initiatives. The State Duma discussed several bills, including On the Ethnic and Cultural Development of the Russian People; On the Right of the Russian People to Self-Determination and Sovereignty in the Entire Territory of Russia and to Reunification in a Single State; and On the Russian People, but none of them was adopted. Reality put very different tasks on the agenda, and pragmatism prevailed over ideological constructs each time. After the establishment of tough presidential control over parliament in 2003, the issue of the divided Russian nation and its right to reunite was marginalized.

The most acute territorial problems in the former Soviet Union flared up in regions where ethnic Russians did not live in compact communities. This was yet another factor that pushed the topic of the nation’s division to the political periphery. Separatist sentiments in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria were caused not by “the division of the Russian people,” but by other historical factors. Local elites unhappy with the policies of Georgia and Moldova are either seeking full independence or striving to merge with Russia. Their political aspirations have no direct link to the problem of ‘compatriots’ the way it is viewed in Moscow, although a sizable number of people in the three territories (about 200,000 in Abkhazia, 50,000 in South Ossetia, and 100,000 in Transnistria) made use of the opportunity to obtain Russian passports through the Russian Law on Citizenship (in the versions of the 1990s).

The disparity between words and deeds in defending the rights of compatriots abroad can hardly be explained by an absence of willingness or means. First, the problem is that Moscow has always treated the protection of rights and interests of Russians and Russian-speaking minorities much more as an instrument of securing leadership in the territory of the former Soviet Union rather than as a goal in itself. The problem was often buried in oblivion for the sake of other foreign policy issues. When the Turkmen president decided to abandon the treaty on dual citizenship in 2003, agreements on the purchase of natural gas outweighed the plight of compatriots in the minds of the Russian government. Moscow generally believes that it should not drop the problem of Russian nationals abroad from the foreign policy agenda, but it has never prioritized this issue. Relations with Latvia and Estonia are an exception to this rule, but here, too, in moments of crisis Russia’s economic interests compel it to confine its actions to loud rhetoric, as was the case in the conflict with Tallinn over the Bronze Soldier monument.

Second, Moscow’s urge for regional leadership in the 1990s did not tally with its limited capabilities. The failure of military action in Chechnya in 1995 put in the spotlight weakness of the state and lack of consensus in society. Russia’s claims to regional domination relied on its potential and extreme weakness of most neighboring states; however, this potential could not be realized at that moment.

The situation changed dramatically during the years of the Putin presidency, as Moscow tapped new mechanisms for influencing the CIS. This happened to a great degree thanks to an economic boom, high energy prices, investment in the economies of neighboring countries and an inflow of seasonal migrant workers who sent back money to their homes, which then turned into a vital source of existence for people in Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Nevertheless, Russia’s ability to use ‘soft power’ and to pursue its interests through an attractive, positive image remains fairly limited.

Finally, Russia’s own federative structure does not leave it much opportunity to take a tougher stance on the problems of Russian communities abroad. For example, if in 1994 Moscow had supported the Crimea’s demands for reunification with Russia or even defended its calls for considerable expansion of its autonomy, Russia could have faced serious problems concerning the legitimacy of demands on the part of its own regions. As the Yeltsin and Putin administrations did everything in their power to keep the country united, they could not openly obstruct their neighbors’ drive for stronger statehoods.

One cannot dismiss the idea that official Russian rhetoric concerning the protection of compatriots somehow helped psychologically to offset the shock of division after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Such rhetoric could partly ease the tensions engendered by a policy of state-building within Russia’s current borders, which reflect neither historical experience nor perceptions of many Russians regarding their “own” space. In addition, imperialist rhetoric may have helped to prevent real imperialist policies. In 1992, Russian policy toward Russian diasporas was entirely rhetorical. During 1993-1994, there was an attempt to back up the rhetoric with some assertive measures, including the advocacy of dual citizenship.  When that course failed, the only thing that Moscow could pin its hopes on was a combination of moderate policies and tough rhetoric – a line that Putin continued during his presidency. It is true that words may yield tangible and quite dangerous consequences, but “neo-imperialist” rhetoric has facilitated  moderation in Russia’s practical steps thus far.


Russia’s actions regarding compatriots abroad will hinge on three factors in the foreseeable future:

  •  The position and actions of Russian communities in neighboring states;
  •  Interstate relations in the territory of the former Soviet Union;
  •  Russia’s domestic and foreign policies.

There are many reasons to believe that the current policy of moderation will continue in the coming years.
The most decisive feature of the situation surrounding ethnic Russians, or, more broadly, Russian-speaking communities in the post-Soviet space, is absence of direct violence against them. Those communities are also characterized by disunity, with any horizontal ties among them practically non-existent. Their size, way of life and level of integration into their host societies also differ substantially. They do not have a common foe or a single vision of their own future. Russian communities are poorly organized. The obscurity of demarcation lines between ethnic Russians and other Russian-speaking groups is another factor that impedes unification under ethnic slogans.

Estonia and Latvia are the only two exceptions, as ethnic Russian minorities there have set up small political parties representing their interests. However, they concentrate all of their activity on resolving problems in the format of Estonian and Latvian statehood and do not link it in any way to Russia or to the concept of Russian compatriots abroad. Without Moscow’s involvement, problems arising within the local Russian communities are likely to remain merely local issues.

As for interstate relations, the problem of compatriots has not been a cause for acute standoffs thus far. Agreements within the framework of the CIS, visa-free travel between most countries and the feeling of a common history have scaled down the intensity of this problem.

Theoretically, actions by governments of post-Soviet countries may trigger an angry reaction from Moscow if they instigate or entice incidents posing a physical threat to ethnic Russians, but there is a very small chance that the situation will develop in this way. The attention of the Russian president will not turn to the problem of compatriots very often unless there is a serious crisis. This means that the policy line will be shaped in most cases at the lower levels of Russian bureaucracy.

There are four driving forces that will determine Moscow’s conduct within the next few years. They include humanitarian considerations, international power-wielding possibilities, domestic law enforcement, and economic issues. Different state agencies and civil society sectors have different interests and motivations, and they will seek to turn their vision of the problem into the main driving force of official policy.

Actions on the part of civil society and its institutions, like the Presidential Commission for Human Rights and the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights, are driven mostly by humanitarian considerations. They will aim their efforts at protecting the Russian-speaking population in neighboring countries and migrants in Russia, and also at liberalizing the Law on Citizenship.

The international power-wielding element may take the form of support for compatriots abroad in order to build up Russia’s influence in the former Soviet Union. However, the Foreign Ministry will most likely try to shift the problem to the humanitarian sphere and to act through various multilateral international institutions. Russian authorities have not learned to use ‘soft power’ to a sufficient degree in relations with foreign countries, so it is unlikely that compatriots’ potential will be effectively utilized as an instrument of international relations in the near future.

The Interior Ministry will continue to contain immigration from former southern Soviet republics and put up obstacles to easy access to Russian citizenship. These practices collide with the interests of businesses, which need a cheap labor force with command of the Russian language. On the other hand, the so-called ‘economic bloc’ in government will be more inclined toward easing the rules for temporary labor migration as long as labor-intensive branches of the economy show high growth rates. This, in turn, will inevitably bring about resettlement of some compatriots in Russia.

Yet whatever the combination of these four elements, a moderate policy will continue. The situation may change only at a political level. The problem of Russian communities abroad and Russia’s responsibility for their destiny is present in theoretical discourse on problems of nation-building. How can radical approaches make their way into real policymaking?


As we said earlier, the problem of Russian communities abroad is not at the top of Russia’s political agenda, yet under certain circumstances, it may come to the fore. Some political forces may bring up the problem of compatriots and reunification with them in a bid to rally electoral support. Yet there are two factors that impede the transformation of the issue into the key national interest and security concern.

First, the economic boom makes abstract theorizing about the Russian nation far less attractive compared to the task of raising the welfare of the Russian people. Despite the reemergence of some imperial symbols, few people are ready to exchange their hard-earned decent standard of living for great-power revanchism.

Second, the Putin-built system leaves little space for political activity that is not controlled by the Kremlin. The ruling elite views ethnic nationalism as a threat to the internal integrity of the state and does not allow parties and movements that wave nationalistic slogans to gain momentum. On the whole, the current Russian elite does not think in narrow ethnocentric terms.

Still, Russian society does contain forces that could begin to question the current moderate policy, and much will depend on the direction the search for a new Russian identity will take. The ethnic self-consciousness of Russians became more noticeable as the imperial shell fell off after the Soviet Union broke up. Russian ethnic nationalism is not a well-organized force at the moment, yet it may rise quickly, especially if the spotlight of discussion falls on goals of nation-building. The term ‘nation’ traditionally has a strong ethnic, not civic, connotation in post-Soviet academia, public opinion, and politics. As it has often happened in European history, common culture may at some point be perceived as an ideal political boundary, which can become a springboard for demands to unite all Russians under one political roof.

The redefinition of Russia in more specific ethnic terms, as has happened in all other Soviet successor states, may become the most dangerous undertaking in the entire history of Russia. Implementation of this project may bring about a revision of state borders and undermine the country’s internal integrity. Building nations on the debris of empires is usually the business of ethnic nationalists. All of the former Soviet republics have harbored ethno-political myths that depicted the state as the motherland of an indigenous ethnos. Such views grow out of traditions of historical romanticism, which suggest that humankind can be neatly divided into nations, and historically or ethnically predetermined nations have certain sacred rights.

In the early 21st century, Russian ethnic nationalism has mostly taken the form of xenophobia. Marginal skinhead groups concentrate their energy on what they find attainable and comprehensible: intimidation and the repression of migrant workers from the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 2006, the authorities made efforts to take initiative away from extremist groups and launched a discussion of indigenous populations’ interests and the interests of a state-forming nation.

Putin, who had earlier used the notion of ‘the indigenous population’ to denote small ethnic groups living in Siberia, has now begun applying it to all Russian citizens living in the Russian Federation, differentiating between them and migrants. “Of course we must think about the interests of the indigenous population. If we don’t think about them […] this will only give a pretext for various radical organizations to promote themselves.” In 2007, the United Russia Party launched the Russian Project, which used terms like ‘the state-forming nation’ and ‘the ethnic core.’

The introduction of ethnic motives in official discourse through discussion of the role of the Russian people is a very dangerous phenomenon. It is not coincidental that the British never emphasized the role of ‘the English people.’ The Soviet Union broke up peacefully in part because Russian ethnic self-consciousness was not mature enough. The collapse of another socialist federation, Yugoslavia, was so bloody because the Serbs encountered less ambiguity concerning their identity. It might sound paradoxical, but inconsistent and muddled relations between Moscow and the republics constituting the Russian Federation, as well as moderate and sometimes highly inefficient policies toward ethnic Russians living in the post-Soviet space, are actually much more important factors of stability in the area than attempts to work out a clear approach to nation-state building. The slogans of building a civic nation may be hijacked, and its civic nature may quickly be thrown aside.

Rather than trying to restore the state within its previous borders, Russia’s “post imperialism” takes a “neo-imperialistic” course. This course can be seen in the desire to impose certain control over domestic and foreign policies of countries that emerged within the territory of what was the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Yet Russian diasporas have so far played a very insignificant role in this area.

The situation may change in the future, however, if nationalism swells in the political arena. An optimistic take on the matter would be to turn compatriots into an instrument of ‘soft power’ and to consolidate a transnational ‘Russian World,’ which would include ‘the multiethnic people of Russia’ and compatriots abroad. The formulation of the Russian compatriots problem in ethnic terms, as well as its use as a hard-power instrument of foreign policy, may lead to disaster. On the other hand, the formulation of this problem in terms of a ‘political nation’ and soft power could bring tangible benefits to Russia.

Many ethnic communities in the world – Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Chinese, the Baltic nations, Central Europeans – act in the interests of their historical homelands. In essence, this is what unites citizens of various countries in a diaspora as a political category. Russia has the opportunity to form a Russian diaspora consisting of ethnic Russians and members of other ethnic groups recognizing links with the Russian Federation. Moscow has already made some steps in this direction, yet it has not backed them up with carefully thought-out and consistent policies, and that is why the results have thus far been modest.

Russian compatriots living abroad wait for Russia’s support, but they do not work for the benefit of their historical homeland themselves.  To have an active diaspora, Moscow should demonstrate its interest in it, as well as its readiness to do something practical for its members. Moscow can make a breakthrough by adopting legislation that would allow conversion of the status of a “compatriot abroad” into the status of a full citizen. At this point, the law and programs for compatriots abroad have practically no connection to the law on citizenship and immigration policies. The compatriot status must create conditions for resettlement to Russia; otherwise it carries no weight for many people who live on former Soviet territory. An appropriate change in legislation would help Russia reach objectives it has thus far failed to attain due to a default of dual citizenship schemes. This would help Russian compatriots left in the former Soviet republics to develop an awareness of their special ties with Russia and have an emergency option in case the situation deteriorates. Moreover, it would make it easier to resettle some compatriots in Russia, attract a highly qualified Russian-speaking workforce, and compensate for a drop in the population.

The problem of compatriots in today’s Russia is a legacy of its imperialist past. Russia has conducted an inefficient policy in this area after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but has managed to avoid making big mistakes. The goal for Russia in the short term is to learn how to protect its compatriots living abroad, utilize their potential for its own interests, and avoid the temptations of neo-imperialism at the same time.

Last updated 2 march 2008, 13:52

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