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30 years of statelessness in the former Soviet Union

Almost three decades have passed since the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent proclamation of independence by fifteen states. Soviet nationality ceased to exist and most former Soviet Republics adopted their own nationality laws yet the collapse of the USSR is one of the events in recent history that has resulted in mass statelessness.

In Ukraine around 35,000 people were left stateless (or at risk of statelessness) and almost double this number were left stateless or at risk of statelessness in Russia.

Because former Soviet states took different approaches to the gain or loss of citizenship, and because of multiple defects and contradictions in the laws of these states, certain individuals and entire groups of people who never exchanged their Soviet passports for the passports of a newly formed state for one reason or another became vulnerable and, ultimately, stateless.

Who are stateless in the former Soviet Union?

The most vulnerable people in terms of statelessness in former Soviet countries are members of ethnic minorities. For example, the majority of Lezgians living in dense communities in areas of Azerbaijan bordering Dagestan were not able to exchange their Soviet passports in time (by 2005). This made it impossible for them to receive foreign passports or communicate with relatives living on the other side of the border in Dagestan.

Many issues stem from the old Soviet passports which were deemed valid for different lengths of time in the various new states once they gained independence. In Azerbaijan, it was possible to exchange it until 2005 for example. In Ukraine, the deadline was initially set to 1 July 2002 and then until 1 September 2002, 1 December 2004 and, finally, 1 January 2005. But far from all residents of Ukraine, like in other former Soviet states, exchanged their passports before the deadline.

This was often due to lack of knowledge about the process of exchanging passports and the consequences of living with an invalid former Soviet passport, the lack of desire to exchange a passport for ideological reasons, among other things. Thus, people who did not exchange their Soviet passports prior to the date established by law found themselves without a valid identity document and with nothing to confirm citizenship.

A report by CF “The Right to Protection” and ADC Memorial provides accounts of those affected, for instance that of Anna Lakatosh and Aladar Forkosh. Born in Ukraine, they are from a Roma family currently living undocumented in the Russian Federation. Following their detention pending administrative removal for not having identification documents, they took their case to the European Court of Human Rights in 2010 (Lakatosh and Others v. Russia). Assisted by ADC Memorial they won the case. Yet almost 10 years later they remain stateless and without documents.

How many are stateless?

According to published data, the number of stateless people in Russia is falling, but is still high: the 2010 Russian census reports that there were over 178,000 stateless persons in the country, while data from UNHCR shows that there were 113,474 stateless persons in 2014,14 82,148 in 2017, and 75,679 as of early 2019.

There is no doubt that the actual number of stateless persons in Russia is much higher.

According to assessments made by the UNHCR on the basis of official data, in 2017 35,294 people who were stateless or at risk of statelessness were living in Ukraine,10 while a 2017 report from the OSCE states that only 78 per cent of residents of Ukraine have identity documents.

It is worth noting that from 2014, the number of persons at risk of statelessness has increased significantly due to the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In the eastern parts of Ukraine which has been seized by pro-Russian armed groups, 57% of all new-borns in the last five years have not received a Ukrainian birth certificates and lack proper birth registration.

In addition, some from the occupied territories who lost their passports cannot confirm their Ukrainian citizenship because authorities do not have access to the archives located on the occupied territory to check whether the passport was indeed issued earlier. Others living abroad and wishing to return are faced with a similar problem if they have lost their passport.

What is the solution?

The majority of stateless persons have grounds for acquiring, say, Russian or Ukrainian citizenship on the basis of their territorial origin, but the formalisation or inaccessibility of the procedure for doing this and defects in the corresponding laws of both countries trap stateless persons in a legal impasse on their path to citizenship. For them, the solution can be straightforward, although they still require legal assistance to approach the court in order to obtain a passport.

For others who do not appear to have a right to acquire citizenship, the only option would be to undergo statelessness determination, but the procedure does not exist in many post-Soviet countries, including Russia and Ukraine. Many still lack an effective procedure to legalise stateless persons who, without valid identity documents, are not only deprived of access to realise their rights, but are also prosecuted for violating the migration laws of the countries where they are located.

Russia has not implemented the strategic decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (primarily in the case of Kim v. Russia, 2015) and the most important decision issued by Russia’s Constitutional Court (case of Noé Mskhiladze, 2017), which could fundamentally improve the situation of stateless persons in Russia. Even though the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs developed a draft law two years ago envisaging that stateless persons would be issued identity documents giving them the right to reside in Russia, the right to work without work licenses and permits, and the possibility for former Soviet citizens to acquire Russian citizenship under simplified procedures, there is still no information that this draft is being considered by the State Duma.

Despite the many decades that have passed since the dissolution of the USSR, many former Soviet countries have still not been able to tackle the situation of documentation or resolve the issues around nationality that arose in its aftermath. This has meant that statelessness is now being passed on to a new generation. How many more decades will it take to eradicate statelessness in the region?

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