Bureaucratic mess strips natives of citizenship

Thousands of Russians find themselves stripped of all rights and benefits in their own country because their names get lost in a paper trail while they try to replace their internal passports.

Last year Oksana Nenich needed to replace her internal passport – Russia’s most important citizenship document.

When she went to apply, officials told her the old one was invalid and confiscated it. At once she had no right to work, travel or receive free medical care. Oksana became stateless in her own country, which stripped her young children of the right to Russian citizenship.

“My life has been destroyed. I am a non-person. I have no name, no registration. They did not explain what was wrong, or warn me, they just took it away,” says Oksana.

Oksana later found out that her passport was invalidated because her name was missing from the passport database. She now awaits a court decision to issue a new one.

Oksana’s story is so shocking that most people may assume it was a one-off freak incident but, in fact, all over Russia there are a multitude of so-called “former citizens”.

Immigration authorities say there are at least 80.000 people with illegitimate passports in Russia. They are a legacy of the immigration chaos that followed the collapse of the USSR, when the population of one country was divided up between 15 new states.

Some of these documents in question were issued under rules that no longer exist. Others were obtained for a fee through semi-legal middlemen. Many are the result of administrative errors by officials. Recently, authorities have been conducting a vigorous campaign to remove the illegal documents.

“Often the passport holder himself is not at fault. But we will not stop the operation. Also, among the eighty thousand are not just ethnic Russians. Some of these people paid bribes for these documents, others do not fit in with our way of life,” says Konstantin Poltoranin, spokesperson for the Federal Migration Service.

However, human rights groups say that in whatever way they obtained their passports, most "former citizens" are legally entitled to them, and they warn against a populist campaign to push out the alleged “fake” Russians.

“I am ashamed of a government that fights its own citizens,” says founder of human rights group Civil Assistance Svetlana Gannushkina.

From this year onwards, “former citizens” will be given temporary residence permits that will at least allow them to work as their new application is considered.

Unfortunately, this is too late for those who have already paid a hefty price for Russia’s passport process.