Russia’s Mass Naturalization of Crimeans Has Had Very Unnatural Effects

At the Group of Seven (G7) annual summit last weekend, U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters that “something happened a while ago where Russia is no longer in [the G8] … I think having Russia back in would be a positive thing.” The statement was met with consternation from Trump’s counterparts and his own party because of the very “something” that ousted Russia from the group: the illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

Taking stock of Trump’s G7 comment, it’s important to reflect on the troubling humanitarian and human rights violations that began in Crimea four years ago. Of particular note—and a violation that received less attention despite its ongoing human impact—was Russia’s mass, automatic naturalization of Crimean residents. Under a “treaty” orchestrated by the de facto authorities and Moscow, newly minted “Russian citizens” had 18 days to come forward to “reject” Russian citizenship and “retain” Ukrainian citizenship.

The “opt out” process unfolded in an atmosphere of coercion, fraught with procedural defects. There were two offices in Crimea where one could (in theory) formally “renounce” Russian citizenship. Many of those committed to closed institutions, such as jails, psychiatric facilities, and orphanages, lack the opportunity to opt out.

A new report by the Open Society Justice Initiative (see link below) concluded that these actions are a form of systematic discrimination perpetrated against Crimean residents. Automatic and unconsented naturalization of an entire population is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian and human rights law.

Using citizenship to exclude and discriminate against groups in the service of territory grabs and “nation-building” is not new: The United States imposed nationality on indigenous peoples; Nazi Germany imposed nationality in occupied territories during World War II even as the 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship and associated rights; Saddam Hussein’s Decree 666 of 1980 stripped Feyli Kurds of Iraqi citizenship; Myanmar (then Burma) created classes of lesser citizenship for ethnic minorities in its 1982 Citizenship Law; and the Dominican Republic Constitutional Tribunal’s September 23, 2013, Sentencia is estimated to have denationalized hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Our report demonstrates that Russia is engaged in an active campaign to reinstate a nostalgic, ethnic-based sense of allegiance to Russia, which has particularly affected the two largest ethnic groups in Crimea—Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians. Each group has experienced a pattern of coercive and occasionally violent suppression of ethnic identity under Russian occupation.

Drawing on historical examples, the report connects the strategic imposition of Russian nationality in Crimea with the de facto authorities’ other efforts to eliminate non-Russian ethnic identities, including wiping out the notion of a civic Ukrainian nationalism from the territory.

Since 2014, the de facto authorities, unlawfully imposing Russian laws in the context of occupation, prosecuted and exiled numerous Crimean Tatars it labeled as terrorists or separatists. The Mejils, the representative body of the Crimean Tatar people, were also deemed an extremist organization and outlawed. The de facto authorities raided and surveilled mosques and homes of Muslims.

The Ukrainian language has been all but removed from the education system (down 97 percent since occupation); Ukrainian Orthodox churches have been attacked, seized, and closed; Ukrainian cultural institutions have been shut down; and celebration of Ukrainian symbols, dates, and historical figures have been suppressed through court sanction, harassment, and threat.

Russia has also engaged in pervasive manipulation of the peninsula’s demographic composition. It has deported Ukrainian citizens who did not acquire Russian citizenship from Crimea for violating Russian immigration law. It integrated all Crimean penitentiary institutions into its own, thereby transferring Ukrainian prisoners and detainees to facilities in mainland Russia. Inversely, Russia increased migration of its own civilian population into Crimea.

Russia also conscripted thousands of new “Russian citizens” into its military, a grave violation of international humanitarian law and international criminal law, and those who object face criminal prosecution by de facto authorities for draft evasion. Many of those conscripted have been transferred to mainland Russia, another grave violation of international humanitarian law.

Right now, Ukraine is suing Russia in the International Court of Justice for violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and in the European Court of Human Rights for violations of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Returning to President Trump’s recent remarks: The instincts are remarkably aligned with the mentality of the Crimean occupation overall. President Trump is advocating, unilaterally and in furtherance of impunity, for the reabsorption of Russia (presumably along with the territory of Crimea) into the G7. Let his remarks serve instead as a reminder that the international community needs to do more, not less, to hold Russia accountable for its actions.