Russia’s Unwelcome Citizens

Last Tuesday after breakfast, I went to a post office in downtown Moscow to put my name on a Russian government blacklist.

According to a law that took effect in August, all Russians living within the country’s borders who hold foreign passports or permanent residence permits of other nations were required to register with the Federal Migration Service (F.M.S.) by Oct. 4. (Dual citizens residing outside of Russia were required to register upon their next visit.) Concealing another citizenship would result in a fine of up to 200,000 rubles (over $5,000), or up to 400 hours of community service. The deadline has now come and gone, and the F.M.S. reports that over 50,000 people have registered.

Russian by birth, I grew up between the United States and Germany, spending summers in Russia with my family. I obtained American citizenship in 2010, and moved to Moscow a year later to pursue postgraduate studies. I felt that all my life had been moving toward this city, which I loved deeply and still considered home. I was eager to contribute to Russian academia, and to find my place in this booming metropolis.

While there are no comprehensive statistics on Russia’s dual citizens, it’s clear that I’m in good company. Some are my colleagues and friends, who returned to Russia in the early 2000s after extensive stays abroad. Like me, they were eager to pursue newly available jobs and partake in Russia’s evolution.

But rather than embrace this dynamism, Moscow has increasingly clamped down on those whose political loyalties it fears may lie beyond national borders. Introducing the registration law earlier this year, Andrei K. Lugovoi, a deputy in the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, warned that Russia “finds itself in an aggressive international environment.” A list of dual citizens, he said, could help Russian security services “in case of an emergency.” These days, finger-pointing toward a distant West is no longer enough: It must be made clear that danger lurks within.

After the law came into force, I had 60 days to fill out a form, make copies of my Russian I.D. and American passport, and hand them in at any Russian post office. Branches in Moscow’s residential areas are notorious for long lines and incompetent staff, so I selected one in a central part of town. When I arrived, two young Russian-Tajik men were making their third attempt to correctly complete their papers. Behind me in line, an elegant woman in her 60s was complaining to a 30-something blonde. “This is my second post office today,” she said. “They were so rude at the other place, and they didn’t know what to do with any of these forms!”

When my turn came, I passed my documents to a woman behind a small window, and asked whether she’d registered many dual citizens in recent weeks. “We’ve had loads from all over,” she said. “I just try to get the papers stamped and the envelopes sealed.”

“I bet this stuff doesn’t take as long in America,” said one of the young Tajik men, who by this point had corrected his forms a fourth time and was standing in line again. The woman behind the window brought her stamp down on my papers with impressive force. She handed me a copy, and I was off. The whole thing had taken about 40 minutes.

We’ve seen lists before. In 2012, the Duma passed a law requiring nonprofit organizations receiving external funding to register as “foreign agents.” Moscow claimed that the law, aimed at groups involved in what it loosely termed “political activities,” was intended only for monitoring purposes. But a wide range of nonprofits soon found their work restricted; many closed their Russian offices or went into hibernation after the government launched unannounced inspections of thousands of NGOs in 2013. Today, NGOs still operating in the country are wary of applying for or spending foreign grant money. And it all started as a simple registration procedure.

Moscow may not yet know what it wants to do with its new list of potential traitors. But there are some troubling hints: In September, the Duma passed a preliminary bill to limit ownership of Russian media properties by foreign or dual citizens to 20 percent. And there are more mundane worries: The prospect of being arrested at a protest and branded a foreign spy; being the subject of a smear campaign; seeing grants or jobs dry up or disappear; having your taxes scrutinized.

Of course, not everyone will face problems. For all Moscow’s efforts to pass restrictive legislation at breakneck speed, the F.M.S. is far too backlogged to properly organize the data it has collected. Less than a week after the deadline, it seems that no one has yet been penalized for failing to comply with the law. Still, the government now has information it can use to target specific individuals. This, coupled with Moscow’s history of selective legal implementation, makes things dangerously unpredictable.

For the time being, at least, Russia’s unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy may offer some respite for the thousands like me who have registered as dual citizens. But this momentary relief is cold comfort. Deep down, we know that things will only get worse.

Olga Zeveleva is a Moscow-based sociologist and political analyst.

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