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State Transition: Citizenship in newly independent States

Oxana Shevel, in her chapter in the Oxford Handbook on Citizenship on fifteen successor states of the former Soviet Union, argues that in these new states the politics of citizenship policymaking differ in three important and systematic ways from those in established ‘older’ states. First, with Soviet citizenship formally ceasing to exist in December 1991 the new states faced the so-called ‘stateness problem’ – that is, a transition process during which there may be uncertainty about the territorial boundaries of the State and who has the right of citizenship in that State.

The second point, resulting from the collapse of large multinational states such as the Soviet Union or previously the multi-ethnic Habsburg and Ottoman empires, is which are the main groups whose status is at stake in the politics of citizenship. Two questions in particular arise: 1) what is the status of residents at the time of independence who held citizenship of the prior larger common State; and 2) under what conditions do co-ethnics residing outside the borders of the new States have a right to citizenship? Shevel’s chapter shows that the post-Soviet citizenship regimes in the newly independent countries provide substantially different answers to these questions, with some countries privileging co-ethnics living abroad and others not; and with some countries adopting generous territory-based policies to resident minorities and others not.

The third and final point is that new and old States differ because the former had to legislate citizenship regimes ‘in the shadow of international institutions’. The post-Soviet States have indeed been more strongly affected by this than old States or even post-colonial States in Africa and Asia because most of the international norms were developed after WWII. In particular, the European Union, the Council of Europe (for example in the form of the 2006 Convention on the avoidance of statelessness in relation to State succession) and UNHCR have been important players in the post-communist transition States since the 1990s.

Another important difference between old and new States is the attitude towards dual citizenship. Costica Dumbrava has shown in his analysis of Central and Eastern Europe as well as six post-Soviet States that dual citizenship is generally not accepted in this region, in contrast to Western Europe. While established States have increasingly come to accept dual citizenship for reasons of immigrant integration, gender equality and the economic benefits, Shevel explains that in new States the politics of dual citizenship is first and foremost about sovereignty:

Concerns for safeguarding state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and associated fears of possibly subversive actions by other states, in particular neighboring states, have been a key factor behind opposition to dual citizenship, while moves towards acceptance of dual citizenship that several states in the region made during the last decade were conditional and crafted in ways that continued to address sovereignty preservation concerns.

The dissolution of the USSR and later Yugoslavia also caused tremendous problems of statelessness, as it led to large groups of people for whom it was unclear to which of the many newly formed States they belonged. The European Network on Statelessness reports that ‘there are believed to be some 225,000 people recorded as stateless or with undetermined nationality in Eastern Europe. They include people with expired Soviet passports who have not been able to acquire the nationality of the state in which they reside since the break-up of the Soviet Union’.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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