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International Relations and Human Rights Observatory

05-24-2022

Passports should guarantee respect for human rights, not serve as a pretext for war

Post-Soviet republics do not have citizenship policies that are as liberal as those in the Americas. Most of them prohibit their citizens from holding Russian passports specifically, which can alienate Russian-speaking populations, even leading them to support Putin’s military interventions. This is too bad, because freedom of movement and the possibility of citizenship in democratic countries are a liberal antidote for Russian irredentism.
By Sybil Rhodes
 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds that all people, including people of all nationalities as well as “stateless” refugees are entitled to certain rights, but in practice the extent to which our rights are protected depends to a great extent on our citizenship status in a particular country. Hannah Arendt captured this idea when she defined citizenship as “the right to have rights.” States cannot always be counted on the protect the rights of all their citizens, however, and so, for individuals, having passports from more than one country can be an important insurance policy. Dual or multiple citizenship can sometimes be a controversial question for democracies in the Western Hemisphere, but in former Soviet bloc countries it is a matter of war and peace.

For the past thirty years, Russia has carried out policies of “passportization,” or rapid mass naturalizations, of people in former Soviet republics. It applied an early version the Baltic countries, especially Latvia and Estonia, in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR, which left large numbers of people, including many Russian speakers who had migrated to those republics in Soviet times, stateless. By 1994, however, all three of the Baltic countries had established they were on a path to joining NATO and the European Union, and many of the formerly stateless in the Baltics, including ethnic Russians, had been permitted and chosen to acquire Latvian or Estonian citizenship (in newly independent Lithuania Russian speakers had automatically been considered Lithuanian citizens).

In 2002, Russia engaged in mass naturalizations in the Republic of Georgia. By 2006, 90% of the population in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia held Russian passports. Two years later, Russia invaded these Georgian territories under the pretext of protecting Russian citizens. In 2014, Russia performed a similar passportization of people in the newly-annexed Crimea, and it began mass-naturalizing people in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in 2019. President Vladmir Putin argues that he sent Russian forces to invade Ukraine to protect these Russian citizens from “humiliation and genocide.” The same justification had been issued for the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. Russian law forbids newly-naturalized Russians from holding citizenship in Ukraine, Georgia, or other post-Soviet republics.

There is a name for policies of territorial conquest under the guise of shared national or ethnic ties with inhabitants. This practice is called irredentism, and it is an archaic and imperialistic tactic.

In the western hemisphere, we tend to associate citizenship with individual choice. Many democratic states accept that a person can be a citizen of more than one country. This liberal model of citizenship can usually be reconciled with conservative and nationalist arguments that citizenship is about obligations (like taxes and military service) as well as rights. Thus, it is not often a topic of terrible salience in the international relations of the region. For example, in Argentina some dual citizens vote in Bolivian, Italian, Peruvian, or Spanish elections. Some people get a bit bent out of shape about this, but no country is going to war over it.

Post-Soviet republics do not have citizenship policies that are as liberal as those in the Americas. Most of them prohibit their citizens from holding Russian passports specifically, which can alienate Russian-speaking populations, even leading them to support Putin’s military interventions. This is too bad, because freedom of movement and the possibility of citizenship in democratic countries are a liberal antidote for Russian irredentism.

Even highly democratic polities can be tempted to abandon aspects of the liberal model in a context of war. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to forbid member countries from directly selling citizenship to wealthy individuals. Russians were the clear targets. The vote is defensible (the greatest injustice of the liberal model is that multiple citizenship is usually more accessible to the rich than to the poor), but democracies will be better off if our leaders refrain from the temptation of moving too far away from the liberal model.

States should compete for citizens on the basis of respect for human rights and the conditions for prosperity, not unilaterally create them as a pretext for empire-building and war.

Sybil Rhodes
Sybil Rhodes
President of CADAL
Director of the Department of Political and Legal Sciences, the Degree in International Relations and the MSc in International Studies at CEMA University. PhD in Political Science at Stanford and with a degree in Latin American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is an expert on the field of international relations and comparative political studies.
 
 
 

 
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