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Russian passport increasingly less attractive to foreigners

Alexey Strelnikov
February 16, 2024

As young men who obtain Russian citizenship could end up having to serve in the military, the numbers applying have fallen drastically in the past two years.

A woman holds a Russian passport
Fewer foreigners are applying for a Russian passportImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Interest in obtaining Russian citizenship has fallen sharply since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. According to the Russian Interior Ministry, some 63,600 people applied for a Russian passport in 2023 — almost half the number in 2022, and a quarter of that in 2015.

Denis (not his real name) was born in the Latvian city of Liepaja on the Baltic coast. He lived there until 1994 before moving to Veliky Novgorod in Russia with his family and obtaining Russian citizenship. But in 2012, he had to decide between his Latvian and Russian passport, after Latvia decided to accept dual citizenship for EU and NATOstates. The 40-year-old told DW that he opted for his Russian nationality. "At the time, I had moved to Novgorod, but I kept visiting Latvia because of my friends there," he said. "I didn't know where Russia was heading."

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Denis packed up his things and returned to Latvia. He was hoping to take advantage of Latvia's repatriation program, as his grandfather was Latvian. He is now determined to give up his Russian citizenship.

Growing Russian death toll

The Civic Assistance Committee, a Russian non-governmental organization that supports refugees and migrants, points out that the Russian authorities have simplified the path towards Russian citizenship in the past year. But a Russian passport now comes with automatic registration with the military and this could explain why fewer people are applying.

People are seen in on the Estonian-Russian border
Some countries in Europe, such as Estonia, have sizable Russian-speaking minoritiesImage: Peter Kovalev/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

"From our point of view, the current political, economical and social situation in the Russian Federation makes Russian citizenship using the financial term 'a toxic asset,'" says the Civic Assistance Committee.

The NGO suspects authorities simplified the naturalization process as Russia has lost scores of citizens fighting in the war in Ukraine and saw a major exodus when it launched a major conscription drive. US military intelligence has assessed that the Ukraine war has so far led to 315,000 dead and wounded Russians.

At least 600,000 people left Russia after the authorities launched a mobilization drive in the country, according to independent demographer Alexei Rakshah. He said that this was a considerable loss especially considering that it was mainly well-educated individuals with high incomes who left. On the other hand, Russia's overall population had not declined, he said, given that around three million Ukrainian refugees now live in the country. Russian authorities have even placed that figure at five million.

In 2022, 691,045 people gained Russian citizenship, according to Russia's Interior Ministry — almost half were Ukrainian citizens of who "automatically" received Russian passports after Russia's occupation of Ukrainian territory.

Migrant workers applying for citizenship

Most voluntary applications for Russian citizenship are submitted by people from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. In 2023, 25,500 people moved from these two countries to Russia, but the figures were much higher the previous year. The Civic Assistance Committee said demand for Russian citizenship was declining among the citizens of both countries, albeit more rapidly among people from Kazakhstan.

A crowd of Ukrainian refugees are seen waiting in Anapa, Russia
Millions of Ukrainian refugees are now living in RussiaImage: AP/dpa/picture alliance

Why are people seeking Russian citizenship knowing they could be sent to war to fight for Russia? The reason is that "they come from villages and small towns where there is practically no work," said Valentina Chupik, a human rights activist who provides legal support to migrants. Migrant workers from Tajikistan in particular want Russian citizenship because it affords them more rights in Russia. "Many of them believe that the war will not affect them and they will be able to avoid conscription if they do not provide a permanent address when applying for Russian citizenship," Chupik said. Some Russian regions, however, are now only issuing passports to migrants who have signed a contract with the army to fight in the war.

Resettlement of compatriots 

In 2004, Russia launched a "resettlement scheme" for compatriots. It was designed to bring in foreigners and compensate for Russia's shrinking population at the time and to help tackle labor shortages in rural areas. Those seeking to relocate are required to speak Russian and "to have grown up in the tradition of the Russian culture and have the desire to maintain ties with Russia.

It can take six years from the time an application is made until Russian citizenship is granted. First, new arrivals must obtain a residence permit and live in Russia for at least five years. Three of these years must be spent in a region assigned by Russian authorities.

Last year, almost one in two applicants changed their mind and abandoned the resettlement program, said the Civic Assistance Committee. There is a considerable difference between the number of those who joined the program and those who actually registered with the Interior Ministry. "Even if they opted for the program, many change their mind and do not move to Russia," said Chupik.

Two men sitting at desks, writing tests
Migrants take a Russian testImage: Egor Winogravow

Latvians and Germans seeking Russian passports

Very few applications for Russian citizenship are submitted by Europeans — with the exception of Latvianand German citizens.

Last year, 633 Latvians moved to Russia and 814 people from Germany applied for temporary asylum. This was a significant increase compared to previous years. Many of those who moved were former Soviet citizens, or had parents who were Soviet citizens, and had moved to Europe in the past 30 years.

The Put' Domoi, or Way Home, Telegram channel, which is supported by the Russian authorities, offers advice on applying for Russian citizenship. Around half of the 25,000 subscribers are from Germany and Kazakhstan. Many Russian-speaking users said in a survey that they were leaving Europe "out of concern for their children's and their own future" (43%), because they wanted "to stand by Russia's side during a time of historical upheaval" (42%) and because of "Nazism and Russophobia" (39%).

Half of all members in the chat group, however, said they did want to move to Russia just yet and were still just gathering information about the steps involved. They were most interested in the bureaucratic aspects of gaining a Russian passport and the options with regard to retaining a second citizenship.

This article was translated from German