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Angst as Russians forced to report dual nationality

Russians will have to declare other citizenships to the authorities under a new law coming into force on Monday -- leading some to fear they may end up on the wrong end of the country's increasingly nationalistic politics.

MOSCOW: Russians will have to declare other citizenships to the authorities under a new law coming into force on Monday -- leading some to fear they may end up on the wrong end of the country's increasingly nationalistic politics.

Failing to declare a second passport or the right to permanent residence in another country will become a criminal offence under the new law, which swept through parliament in a matter of weeks. There has been a spate of nationalistic laws -- as well as crackdowns on dissidents and critics -- since President Vladimir Putin began a third term as president in 2012. That trend has accelerated since Russia's annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of hostilities in neighbouring Ukraine.

Many are wondering if there is a sinister intent behind the new citizenship law. Debates have broken out in social media about what people should do. "There is the fear -- why is this needed?" said Leonid, a 28-year-old businessman, who gave only his first name. "First they require us to notify, will they then make us choose?"

PEOPLE ARE NERVOUS

The Russian constitution explicitly allows citizens to take a a second nationality, and authorities are often aware since the the question appears on passport applications. But "the problem is that in Russia laws mean one thing on paper and in reality something completely different," journalist Svetlana Reyter, who acquired Dutch citizenship from her husband, said in the online journal Afisha-Gorod.

Pro-opposition political analyst Alexander Morozov said that the such laws "create an atmosphere of self-censorship and fear in society." Officials aren't reassuring. One Muscovite who went to the authorities said officials were cheerful and helpful when asked about renewing her passport. "But when I asked about declaring my second nationality the woman turned to stone and told me to come back after the law enters into force," said a bank executive who did not want to give her name.

While still uncertain whether she will declare her second nationality, she did not hesitate when asked what she would do if forced to make a choice. "In general I am loyal to my country, but if Russia makes me choose it will be my EU passport," she said. "But only if I can get a Russian permanent residency card as my family and career are here."

Russia has a history of persecuting those it sees as dissidents or even enemies. Authorities led by Putin said the law was needed because people who are citizens of two countries have divided loyalties. "We absolutely should know and have the right to know who lives in Russia and what they are doing," the Russian strongman said in March. The law follows legislation that forced non-governmental organisations that receive foreign funding to register as "foreign agents".

UNSETTLING QUESTIONING

Fears about being forced to choose nationality are not outlandish as during the Soviet period dissidents were sometimes stripped of their citizenship and forced into exile. That is what happened to veteran human rights defender Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who ended up in the United States, but later returned to Moscow and re-established her Russian citizenship.

Her prominence didn't spare Alexeyeva being summoned last year to the prosecutor's office where she was questioned about how she obtained her US passport. "I don't hide I have a second nationality -- American," the 87-year-old rights campaigner said. 

And Russian state media often pointedly refer to the fact she has US citizenship when reporting on her human rights activities. Legal analysts writing in Expert magazine believe that the law could be challenged on numerous grounds. In particular, they noted the measure doesn't set out why the failure to declare a second nationality is a threat that merits making it a criminal offence which can carry a fine of up 200,000 rubles (US$5,600) or 400 hours of community service.

LEGAL LIMBO

While Russians residing abroad are supposed to be exempt, the law has put them in legal limbo as it does not specify the criteria for being considered as living abroad permanently. Worse, Russian authorities have been giving out contradictory information and social media sites are full of questions by Russians living abroad about what to do.

But DLA Piper LLP lawyers Ruslan Vasturin and Anton Polivanov recommended in an online article that expatriates cancel their Russian residence registration to be certain of not falling under the reporting requirement. This is a further step cutting ties to their homeland that many Russian expatriates would prefer to avoid, but they would have to go to the expense of travelling home to declare their second nationality.

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