Russia’s Passport Distribution Policy as a Soft Power Tool

A tangible sign or expression of a state’s sovereignty and individual’s citizenship is the passport. However, passports are not equal in value since some are more powerful and valuable than others and the assumption that only recognized sovereign governments may bestow passports has been steadily evolving. Given that recognition of the validity of the travel document enhances the issuing entity’s legitimacy, de facto states strive to increase the document’s level of acceptance worldwide; however, when those de facto states fail to accomplish this mission, they must seek alternative paths, which “others” exploit for their own gain.

The term “others” refers to the Russian state and its campaign of “passportization,” which is a component of its soft power. As warfare has evolved significantly over time, and while Russia could easily interfere with other countries using military force in previous centuries, modern political realities have changed, and the distribution of passports to peoples in breakaway regions such as Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Ukraine’s Donbass fits perfectly within this framework. Passports granted by separatist governments have limited international acceptability, implying that their authority and worth are restricted, but those issued by Russia have more power and potential.

Due to the fact that all of the aforementioned breakaway regions are de jure domains of Western- oriented states – Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – one of the key objectives for Russia’s large passportization strategy was to strengthen control over these states, delaying their rapprochement with NATO and the EU. Nevertheless, Russian authorities justify their decision by defending the rights of ethnic Russians living on those territories, who lack diplomatic protection and socioeconomic benefits such as pensions, education, access to job markets, and healthcare, and are thus eager to receive those benefits from the Russian government. As a result, the Russian government provides an excellent opportunity to protect its residents in the event that Georgia, Ukraine, or Moldova attempt to restore sovereignty over these disputed territories. Additionally, the Russian passport initiative provides a great chance to expand the sphere of influence without direct meddling with or being accountable for these regions.

On April 24, 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a directive streamlining the process of issuing Russian passports to Ukrainians living in Russia-occupied Donbas areas. This decision sparked outrage in Ukraine as well as in other nations and international organizations. Despite Ukraine’s and the West’s unequivocal response, the Center for Issuing Russian Passports to Residents of the Ukrainian Donbas was quickly established in the Rostov Region. Putin rationalized his move by stating that he was defending the rights of people living in Ukrainian Donbas, despite the fact that the Russian Federation’s motivation for taking such a measure was to cause strife among Ukrainians. Given Russia’s experience with Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria, establishing a similar approach in Luhansk and Donetsk was not difficult.

Russian passports were made available in Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the Russian Federation’s 2002 adoption of a legislation, and at the time of the bill’s introduction, 40% of the population of South Ossetia and 30% of Abkhazians already had Russian citizenship. (Lachert, Y., 2020) By the time the Russo-Georgian war started in 2008, about 90% of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s inhabitants had become Russian citizens. (Artman, V., M., 2014) Nonetheless, one may speculate on how many of those applicants were ethnic Russians and how many were Ossetians or Abkhaz. Abkhazia and South Ossetia began issuing their own passports in 2006. Despite the Abkhazian and South Ossetian governments’ efforts, they have been recognized by only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Syria, and other self-proclaimed states such as the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Luhansk People’s Republic, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Transnistria, and Nagorno Karabakh.

Concluding, one can state that the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 and annexation of Crimea by Russia (Russian passportisation also took place in Crimea, starting in 2008 and ending with Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014) were the culmination of a years-long process of attempting to reassert Russian hegemony in Georgia and Ukraine. Passportization was a vital component of Russian soft power and subsequent hard power implementation since what it achieved was the creation of a confusing and treacherous pattern of overlapping sovereignties as the land legally belongs to those state, but the population belongs to Russia. This is self-evident, given the overwhelming majority of citizens in those regions that are loyal to the Russian government. (Toal, G. & O’Loughlin, J., 2014) It’s notable that holders of those Russian passports vote for Putin and his government despite having never visited Russia, owing to the efficacy of Russian propaganda in promoting ideas, perceptions, and agendas favorable to the Russian government.

Finally, one may say that now that Russian troops are threatening Ukraine, the passportization process is laying the groundwork for future Russian involvement. Transnistria started issuing internal passports in 2001, and they are accepted as legal travel documents only by Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia, as well as valid internal documents in Moldova (Protocol on Mutual Recognition in the Territory of Transnistria and Moldova of Documents Issued by the Relevant Bodies of Both Parties 2001). Hence, around 250,000 of the 500,000 individuals residing in Transnistria are considered to hold Russian citizenship. (Lachert, Y., 2020) Therefore, are we going to be witnesses to another escalating crisis in Eastern Europe launched by Russia?

Muraz Safoev

The Foreign Policy Council Research Fellow

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