Russia’s Policy Toward Compatriots in the Former Soviet Union
No. 1 2008 January/March
Igor A. Zevelev

MGIMO University (Moscow State Institute of International Relations)
Moscow, Russia
Doctor of Science (Political Science)
Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center, Washington, USA
Global Fellow: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/person/igor-zevelev


ORCID: 0000-0003-0579-2679
Scopus Author ID: 6506359127
ResearcherID: AAH-5983-2021
Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=OrfxYF4AAAAJ


E-mail: [email protected]
Address: One Woodrow Wilson Plaza, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington DC 20004, USA

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

  •  The
    position and actions of Russian communities in neighboring
  •  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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.