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The Aftermath of Annexation: Russia and Ukraine Adopt Conflicting Rules for Changing Citizenship of Crimean Residents (updated)

By Oxana Shevel (EUDO CITIZENSHIP expert)

Last update 16 April 2014

With Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Ukraine’s non-recognition of the annexation, the question of citizenship status of local residents looms large.  According to article 4 of the Russian law from 23 March 2014 “On the Acceptance of the Republic of Crimea into the Russian Federation and the Creation of New Federal Subjects – the Republic of Crimea and the City of Federal Significance Sevastopol,” citizens of Ukraine and stateless persons who were permanently residing in Crimea as of March 18 (the date of Crimea’s incorporation into Russia) are recognized as citizens of Russia, unless they declare within one month (so by April 18) their desire to maintain another citizenship or to remain stateless. The same article of this law also states that after one month Russian legislation that limits holders of other citizenship from occupying government and municipal jobs comes in effect in Crimea.  

The explanations of the Ukrainian authorities on the citizenship status of Crimean residents, the process of acquisition of Russian citizenship and the situation of those who do not want to acquire Russian citizenship and want to maintain their Ukrainian citizenship reveal several problematic issues for Crimean residents. The situation, including regulations and practices affecting citizenship matters, is also changing rapidly and conflicting commentaries and explanations come even from government officials.

The Crimean crisis challenged Ukraine’s long-standing policy of non-recognition of multiple citizenship, and the available information shows that the Ukrainian government is treating Crimea as a special case. Ukrainian legislation does not recognize multiple citizenships and voluntary acquisition of foreign citizenship is one of the grounds for initiating of a procedure of terminating Ukrainian citizenship. However, Ukrainian officials stated that Ukraine will continue considering Crimean residents, including those who will apply and will be issued Russian passports, as citizens of Ukraine and will guarantee them political and economic rights. Acknowledging that this “to a certain extent” goes against Ukrainian legislation, the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers official explained that the case of illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory and “forceful issuance” of passports by Russia are circumstances that warrant an exception. The Ukrainian State Migration Service explained that Ukrainian citizenship can be terminated only after a person who permanently lives abroad (to become such a person under the Ukrainian law is a complex and lengthy procedure) acquires another citizenship and then applies to have his or her Ukrainian citizenship terminated. Citizenship termination comes into effect once the President of Ukraine signs a decree on this matter, so no action by the Russian state can terminate Ukrainian citizenship in the eyes of the Ukrainian state. While this is correct, Ukrainian citizenship law  also contains a provision that allows Ukrainian authorities to initiate citizenship termination procedure in cases when citizen of Ukraine voluntarily acquired a foreign citizenship, but it appears that Ukraine will not be applying this clause to residents of Crimea.

The Ukrainian government already instructed migration service offices throughout mainland Ukraine to accept and process applications from Crimea residents on all passport-related matters, such as applying for a passport for foreign travel, changing the name in the passport, etc under simplified rules. Under Ukrainian law, citizens apply for passport-related formalities to the migration service office at their place of residence, but Crimean residents are now allowed to apply anywhere in mainland Ukraine. The government is also instituting procedures that would allow Crimean residents to vote in Ukrainian presidential elections on 25 May in the Ukrainian regions bordering Crimea. A new law "On upholding rights and freedoms of citizens on the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine" was just adopted by the Ukrainian parliament, which states that the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine has to establish a procedure for paying pensions to Ukrainian citizens in Crimea who do not receive pension payments from Russia. The Ukrainian passport would be also required for Crimeans to obtain Schengen visas. The European Council decided that the EU visa will be issued to residents of Crimea only in embassies/consulates located on the territory of Ukraine and only into Ukrainian passports as the EU does not recognize the annexation of Crimea.

The final version of the law contains a special amendment pertaining to citizenship which was added to the government proposal by the members of the Parliament. According to the stenographic record of the parliamentary debate, MP Volodymyr Ariev from Batkivshchyna party reminded the chamber that Russia set 18 April as the deadline for Ukrainian citizens who are registered as residing in Crimea to submit applications that they do not wish to become Ukrainian citizens, and that after this date Russia will consider all those who did not submit applications as Russian citizens. Ariev argued that this essentially will make many Ukrainian citizens "criminals", presumably because Ukraine does not recognize multiple citizenship and acquisition of foreign citizenship by a Ukrainian citizen is a ground for the Ukrainian authorities to initiate a procedure to terminate the person's Ukrainian citizenship. He also stated that he knows of disabled people in his electoral district who are registered as Crimean residents but who cannot travel there to apply to refuse Russian citizenship by the deadline. He therefore tabled an amendment that "Ukraine does not recognize forceful enlistment of its citizens into citizenship of a foreign country." The amendment was approved on second attempt with 234 votes in favor, together with the amendment that citizens of Ukraine are free to travel to Crimea without obtaining special permission from State Migration Service. The original draft stipulated that citizens of Ukraine, except for those who are registered as residing in Crimea, will need to obtain special permission to travel to the peninsula. 

Russia does not require Ukrainian citizens who apply for Russian citizenship to surrender their Ukrainian passports or to formally relinquish their Ukrainain citizenship although, as the Crimean Prime Minister indicated on 11 April, civil servants and law enforcement officials who wish to keep their jobs will be required to formally relinquish their Ukrainian passports. This conformswith the Russian law since, as noted above, holders of more than one citizenship cannot occupy government jobs in Russia. But under Ukrainian law these people will not be able to relinquish their Ukrainian citizenship even if they wanted  since one has to permanently reside abroad before one can apply to have Ukrainian citizenship terminated.  

Even though from the point of view of the Ukrainian state Ukrainian citizenship of Crimean residents will not be affected by the annexation of Crimea or subsequent actions of the Russian government, including issuance of Russian passports to Crimean residents, Russia will consider as Russian citizens all residents of Crimea who have not formally applied by 18 April not to become Russian citizens. This means, for example, that they will be subject to military service requirements. Ukraine has ended conscription service this year, while in Russia conscription remains in force.  Article 3 of the 23 March Russian law on the acceptance of Crimea into Russia states that residents of Crimea conscripted into the Russian armed forces will serve on the territory of Crimea until the end of 2016. After this date conscripted soldiers can be sent to serve anywhere in Russia, including the turbulent region of North Caucasus, and this prospect is hardly appealing to many parents of Crimean boys.  For some Crimeans, especially those who identify with Ukraine, the question thus arises whether they want to formally refuse Russian citizenship.

Many reports by local residents and activists from Crimea that have appeared in the Ukrainian media and on social networks since Russia annexed the peninsula indicate that Russia is making it difficult to refuse Russian citizenship. In particular, refusal of Russian citizenship is affected by the limited number of places in Crimea where one can formally register such a refusal. The Russian law of 23 March 23 did not specify to what authority the application to maintain current citizenship and not to be attributed Russian citizenship was to be submitted. Local passport offices affiliated with the Ministry of the Interior that in the post-Soviet region traditionally deal with the issuance of passports and residency registration are accepting applications for Russian passports throughout Crimea. According to a Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) official, as of 8 April, some 80,000 Russian passports were issued to Crimean residents, at a rate of 13,000 a day, and 150,000 applications for Russian passports have been received. One can apply for a Russian passport in about 160 such offices in Crimea, and those who have Crimean registration but are presently outside Crimea can apply for Russian citizenship at a branch of the Russian FMS anywhere in the world, according to the FMS. At the same time, until 11 April, the FMS accepted applications from those who do not wish to become Russian citizens only in four offices in Crimea, three of which are located in and around the regional capital Simferopol and one more in Sevastopol. This means that people living elsewhere in Crimea had to travel potentially over long distances to submit applications, while those who live outside Crimea were not able to apply at all.There is conflicting information on whether Russian embassies and consulates are accepting such applications. On 11 April, FMS in Crimea reported on its Facebook page that it will be immediately opening five more offices in other towns in Crimea, where one can apply to refuse Russian citizenship. At the same time, according to a local blogger and activist, FMS stopped accepting applications sent by registered mail that it was reported to have accepted previously. The mail-in route was actively discussed on social media as it affects those who are formally registered as living in Crimea who in fact have been living, working, or studying elsewhere – in mainland Ukraine or abroad. The registered mail route was considered risky since there are no guarantees that the application will be duly registered or even delivered since the rapid takeover of Crimea by Russia and Ukraine’s non-recognition of the annexation also affected mail service and FMS officials also discouraged it.

According to the data provided by the FMS, as of April 7 only 16 people in Crimea submitted applications to refuse Russian citizenship, but other sources indicate that the number are much higher, and furthermore that not all those wishing to apply may be able to do so by the deadline. This report, for example, contains a video filmed inside one of the four offices where applications can be submitted. A person in the video says that she is number 186 in line, and that this is not the first day she has been coming and the line is too long for her to get in. Long lines beyond daily capacity of each of the four offices are confirmed by other local residents and the media. The maximum capacity of each of the four offices which is estimated to be around 70, possibly up to 100, people a day, according to local activists who have gone through the process themselves and are now helping guide others.  Given that lines are extending to several days, it’s possible that not all those who wish to refuse Russian citizenship will be able to do so by April 18 deadline. If five more offices indeed open from April 11 it would meet more of the demand, but it remains to be seen if all of the demand will be met during the one remaining week.

On social networks people speculate that Russia may have purposefully limited the number of offices to ensure that, given the daily capacity of each office, the number of people who will be able to refuse Russian citizenship in the course of four weeks will not exceed 3% of the Crimean residents, thus approximating official referendum results (according to the official results, 96.77% of Crimean residents voted in March 16 referendum for Crimea to join Russia; the population of Crimea is 2.35 million). On April 9 Ukrainian Justice Minister stated that Ukrainian government also believes that Russia is purposefully creating obstacles for Crimeans who do not wish to become Russian citizens, and that Ukraine is collecting facts to this effect and will add them as evidence for prospective claims against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights.

Decision not to become citizen of Russia in the annexed Crimea is costly – literally and figuratively. According to one FMS official, Russian passports are issued for free until 1 January 2015, and afterwards the price will be 200 rubles (later FMS stated that Russian passports will continue to be free indefinitely), while those who apply not to become Russian citizens will have to apply for Russian permanent residency permits (vid na zhitelstvo) and pay 2,000 ruble fee for it. There is conflicting information as to whether permanent residency permits will be issued automatically to all those who permanently resided in Crimea as of March 18, or whether people will need to undergo a procedure foreigners undergo in Russia before they can acquire permanent residency permit, which involves first getting temporary residency permit and after living with it for half a year applying for permanent residency permit. According to one FMS official, no documents beyond personal application and 2,000 rubles fee will be required from Ukrainian citizens who permanently resided in Crimea as of March 18 to receive Russian permanent residency permit. Another FMS official, however, indicated that Crimeans will first have to acquire temporary residency permit, and then in half a year apply for permanent residency permit and wait another half a year before they can receive it. Yet another FMS official stated that those who refuse Russian citizenship will lose legal status and right to legally be in Crimea on April 19, and therefore will need to leave the territory of the peninsula, then re-enter Russia legally as foreign citizens, register at their place of residence, and only then apply for temporary residency permit. The procedure for applying for temporary residency permits established by the Russian law is complex and requires in documents confirming that the applicant was not convicted by a court before, does not have drug addiction, dangerous infectious diseases, or HIV-AIDS. Most disturbing and most recent information posted on April 11 by a local blogger and citing FMS office in Simferopol as the source is that Crimeans who refuse Russian citizenship need not only to leave and re-enter Crimea for their presence in Crimea to be considered legal after April 19, but that upon re-entry they will be subject to the rule Russia introduced on 1 January 2014 for countries with which it has visa-free travel. This rule is that one cannot stay on the territory of Russia for more than 90 days out of any 180 days. In other words, in order to apply for even temporary residency permit, Crimeans may need to leave Crimean territory twice and spend some time living outside Crimea.

Uncertainty associated with the requirements for registering legal stay in Crimea and the possible loss of rights – potentially even the right to stay in Crimea without leaving and re-entering – if one refuses Russian citizenship, as well as substantial costs associated with getting residency permit as opposed to free Russian citizenship, is likely deterring many Crimeans from refusing Russian citizenship. At the same time, hostile climate towards those with pro-Ukrainian views and forthcoming restrictions on civil and political liberties such as the right of assembly and the ability to criticize the government that are coming to Crimea with the Russian legislation are driving some Crimeans towards leaving the peninsula all together.  According to Ukrainian authorities, by the end of March more than 3,500 people fled Crimea for mainland Ukraine, many of them Crimean Tatars, a Sunni Muslim group that considers Crimea its homeland and that traditionally has been pro-Ukrainian and opposed Russian annexation of Crimea. Acting Prime Minister of Ukraine Arseniy Yatseniuk stated that Ukraine is ready to welcome and accommodate as many as 23,000 escapees from Crimea.


Read more on the key provisions of the law and on the debate in the parliament in Pravda.

While the final version of the law would not be available before the official promulgation, read the drafts and the opinions of the legal department and relevant committees on the website of the parliament  (in Ukrainian).  


Read our earlier news on citizenship in Crimea here, here and here.