ROAR: Russian passports will not contain information on holder’s ethnicity

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
The Constitutional Court has ruled that the absence of information about ethnicity in a passport does not contradict the Russian Constitution.

The court stressed that, judicially, ethnicity does not influence the possibility of obtaining Russian citizenship.

A citizen from Volgograd had appealed to the court, complaining that Russian passports do not contain a line to write information on people’s ethnic origins. This violates a citizen’s right to indicate their ethnicity, thus discriminating against them, he claimed.

Part 1 of Article 26 of the Russian Constitution says: “Everyone shall have the right to determine and indicate his nationality. No one may be forced to determine and indicate his or her nationality.”

In Soviet times, people’s ethnicity was identified in passports to specify their ethnic origin. The word “Russian” in a passport meant ethnic Russian, rather than a citizen of the USSR. There were also ethnic Tatars, ethnic Bashkirs etc.

Ironically, some people protested against the so-called “fifth paragraph” in passports and other documents, stressing that non-Russian ethnic origin may hinder people when they try to enter universities or occupy a state position. Officially, there was no discrimination on ethnic grounds in the USSR.

Since 1996, Russian passports have not contained any information indicating people’s ethnicity. Some have opposed this decision, but there have been no mass protests.

Information about ethnic origin may be identified in a birth certificate if the parents wish.

Interestingly enough, back in 2004, the Volgograd Regional Duma appealed to the Constitutional Court, wondering if the absence of the line on ethnicity in a passport may contradict the main law.

The court then refused to consider the matter because the State Duma was considering a bill about citizens’ main documents. The interference of the court at that stage might become “a preliminary constitutional control,” which was beyond its powers.

The bill had already been adopted, although only in its first reading, back in October 2003. It stipulated the possibility of indicating ethnicity in a passport if a citizen wanted it and submitted a special application.

However, later the deputies abandoned the consideration of this document, Vzglyad.ru online newspaper said.

Russia is a multinational country and “it is normal” that passports do not contain ethnic identification, believes Anatoly Kucherena, chairman of the Public Chamber’s commission on control over law enforcement agencies and reforming judicial system.

It cannot infringe upon people’s rights in any way,” he told Vzglyad. “If a citizen wants to identify his ethnicity in any form or questionnaire, law does not ban it. The court has made this decision to exclude any disputable moments concerning this issue.”

Several countries of the former Soviet Union have returned the ethnic identification to their passports,” the paper said. “Kazakhstan made the change at the beginning of last year. The country’s biometric passports contain this information.”

The Constitutional Court has ruled that ethnicity does not have any legal significance, and now the ethnic identification will not return to passports, Vzglyad said. The court’s judges believe that such identification does not influence people’s citizenship, the paper said.

The question about ethnic identity is a disputable issue, not only in Russia, but also in other countries, Pavel Salin of the Center for Political Conjuncture said. The Constitutional Court’s position reflects the interests of a multinational country that has several faiths, he told Actualcomment.ru website.

At the same time, it is not a simple question, because the man who applied to the Constitutional Court cites Article 26 of the Constitution, Salin noted.

But a certain compromise option may be developed, the analyst believes. Passports do not contain pages to indicate ethnicity, but it may be written on an insert. Several left-wing parties proposed this variant at the beginning of the 2000s, he stressed.

Despite many Russians taking the absence of ethnicity identification for granted, several citizens and groups have written open letters and conducted actions over the Internet urging the authorities to return the line about ethnicity to passports.

Almost 21,000 people voted for this decision at KM.ru website in March 2006. The organizers said the action should have made the authorities pay attention to “the absence of one of the main points of self-identification.”

The process of replacing old Soviet passports for new ones ended in 2005, and one of its results was the absence of the special line to identify ethnicity, the website said. But ethnic self-identification may help to solve demographic and immigration problems, they insist.

In a moment we were deprived of one of the main means of human self-identification…that served to unite people living on the same territory and practicing one religion,” KM.ru said. “From the state’s point of view, all these people are simply Russians, their ethnicity shyly passed over in silence.”

But federal authorities allow Russian republics (meant to be home to particular ethnic minorities) to have their inserts in passports. The inserts are published in the languages of these republics and in Russian.

These documents do not contain any ethnic identification either. However, this information may be included if a passport holder wishes it.

During the all-Russian census due to be held in October, people will be asked to indicate their ethnicity. Different polls show that many respondents, especially senior citizens, support the decision to include such a line. A survey conducted in the Republic of Karelia found that only 7 per cent of respondents opposed this question, RIA Novosti news agency said.

However, media speculate that the possibility to identify ethnicity will allow some people, like in previous censuses, to show that they identify themselves as hobbits or elves.

Sergey Borisov,
Russian Opinion and Analysis Review