How the system of granting Ukrainian citizenship to foreigners breeds fears and tensions that are especially dangerous for a country at war
Analysis from various international consultancies says that Ukrainian passports have become more attractive. Ukraine ranked 80, i.e. 19 steps up from last year, on the list of 168 countries in the most recent annual Quality of Nationality Index by Henley&Partners, a provider of global residence and citizenship planning services. The top countries on the list are France, Germany and Iceland, while Ukrainian citizenship is in the “high quality” category. There are some obvious reasons for this improvement, including visa-free travel for Ukrainian passport holders to the Schengen Area and many other countries. But the current position is not the best Ukraine has seen in this index — it ranked 74 in 2013. The reasons for going down are obvious, too: Ukraine has lost a lot in terms of its domestic security as a result of the occupation of Crimea and the war in the East.
According to Ukraine’s State Statistics Bureau, the number of foreigners obtaining Ukrainian citizenship has declined ever since the war began. In 2014, 7,777 people got their Ukrainian passports based on their territorial origin, i.e. Ukrainian origin of their immediate family members, or Presidential Decrees — these are the two possible ways to obtain Ukrainian citizenship. In 2015, the number dropped to 4,723. It barely changed in 2016 and 2017 with 4,803 and 4,581 respectively. The number of immigrants registered with the State Migration Service of Ukraine, has barely changed too, going slightly up from 252,000 in 2014 to 262,000 in 2017.
By contrast, the issue of obtaining Ukrainian citizenship has become much more visible in public discussions. The best known case of a foreigner obtaining Ukrainian citizenship under the previous government was MP Vadym Novynskyi. This Russian citizen received his Ukrainian passport in 2012 “as a person with significant accomplishments on behalf of Ukraine”. The Presidential Decree by Viktor Yanukovych granting Ukrainian citizenship to Novynskyi did not specify what exactly these accomplishments were. A year later, Novynskyi became an MP and remains in Parliament as part of the Opposition Bloc today. He is a proactive promoter of the interests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine.
After the Maidan, more foreigners have been granted Ukrainian citizenship under Presidential Decrees. According to the most recent ones, Ukrainian passports were given to “individuals whose Ukrainian citizenship is in the interests of the State.” Former ministers Aivaras Abromavičius and Natalia Jaresko, ex-Chief of National Police Khatia Dekanoidze and her deputy Eka Zguladze, former Head of Odesa Oblast State Administration Mikheil Saakashvili and Oleksandr Borovyk, an ex-candidate for the Odesa Mayor office, and many more have received their Ukrainian citizenship under this formula. Many of these people have already quit their Ukrainian passports. Acting Minister of Health Uliana Suprun is probably the only representative of this cohort who remains active in Ukrainian politics to this day.
This massive involvement of foreigners in government has led to the appearance of double standards in obtaining Ukrainian citizenship. Oleh Levytskiy, lawyer and director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union’s public assistance office, says that most average applicants for Ukrainian citizenship face nontransparent bureaucracy of the State Migration Service (SMS). It is the key intermediary between the applicant and the Presidential Decree that marks the finalization of the procedure. According to Levytskiy, the State Migration Service starts the citizenship granting procedure by verifying the applicant’s previous documents. In most cases, the SMS finds some formal flaws. “What they mostly discover is mistakes made under the previous SMS administrations from 7, 10 or 15 years back. As a result, instead of obtaining citizenship, the applicants tend to lose even the documents they already have,” Oleh explains.
A Georgian-born applicant has recently experienced this. A resident of Ukraine since 1994, he had to go through over two years of court proceedings against the SMS which the Supreme Court ended in June 2018. According to his case files, the Georgian-born applicant received his immigration and temporary residence permits for an unlimited period 10 years ago. In May 2015, he applied to the SMS to get a Ukrainian passport. The SMS cancelled its earlier decision to issue the residence permit to him because the applicant had failed to provide the original version of his Soviet Union passport back in the day. The situation was quite absurd: the applicant could not submit that passport because a Kyiv Department for Visas and Registrations, a predecessor of SMS for some functions, had lost it in 2000. In turn, the Department received it from the police which confiscated the passport from the Georgian-born holder and sent it to the Department for a check-up.
The Supreme Court sided with the applicant and ruled the SMS’ decision to annul his documents illegal. The reason: “an individual without citizenship thus ended up on the territory of Ukraine without any respective documents and cannot be expelled to any other state because he has no other citizenship.” In other words, the SMS’ decision put the applicant outside the state system and any guarantees of basic rights.
Levytskiy claims that the key problem faced by foreigners in Ukraine is that they can find themselves with no papers whatsoever. “I don’t see any problem with the citizenship issue. People can live without it. However, other documents are often recognized illegal for formal reasons. For example, inaccurate translation from an exotic language — a client of mine from Ethiopia had a problem
when the officials put her name and last name in the wrong lines. She applied for citizenship with those documents and ended up with officials rejecting both her citizenship request and the extension of her stay in Ukraine,” he explains. Oleh says that the system Ukraine currently has is extremely non-transparent.
The officials offer a different view. As the supervisor of the migration service, the Ministry of Interior Affairs describes the current system as excessively transparent: “We are now doing a massive check-up of earlier decisions by judges and come across outrageous precedents. We annul citizenships issued based on such fictitious decisions. But this is just a response. What we need is to plug the loophole in legislation comprehensively and eliminate opportunities for corruption,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told LIGA.net in an interview in April. According to him, all the applicants had to do earlier was to bring a witness to court who could confirm their residence on the territory of Ukraine before the collapse of the Soviet Union [this is one of the basic options allowing an applicant to obtain Ukrainian citizenship — Ed.]. The judges made their decisions without due verification and fraudsters used this. The Ukrainian Week has enquired the Interior Ministry about the results of the inspections announced by Avakov. The Ministry replied that it only monitored citizenship decisions issued on the basis of territorial origin under international simplified procedure agreements with Belarus, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over the five years until 2017. Therefore, 2,975 out of 30,000 cases have been inspected and “individual violations” were discovered in 1,781. All these violations require additional investigation, the Ministry officials reported. So it is too early to speak of final conclusions.
As to the loopholes in laws that have led to the violations, the Ministry officials claim that they are quite nominal. The problems described above were actually created by unscrupulous judges, first and foremost. For example, some issued their territorial origin-based decisions to people from countries outside of the former Soviet Union.
The Ministry’s proposed solution is to narrow down the list of grounds for obtaining Ukrainian citizenship — they see this as a campaign against the threats to Ukraine’s national security. Avakov’s statement came at the same time when amendments to the law on citizenship were undergoing an intense debate. Two weeks later, President Poroshenko submitted the amended citizenship bill to Parliament. The current citizenship law dates back to 2001. It has been amended several times ever since, but not significantly. The bill proposed by President Poroshenko would abolish the possibility of obtaining Ukrainian citizenship on the basis of having lived in its territory before 1991, ban territorial origin-based citizenship for criminals and more. Among other things, the bill would solve the issue of double citizenship.
The current laws neither allow, nor de facto prohibit double citizenship in Ukraine. There is no legal framework for establishing cases of double citizenship. In other words, the current laws do not qualify a holder of the passport of Ukraine and another country as a person with established double citizenship.
Poroshenko’s bill is not the first attempt to solve this. According to the Main Research and Expert Department of the Verkhovna Rada, seven more bills on the topic were being considered by Parliament at the time when President Poroshenko sponsored his bill. But this attempt has failed, too. President Poroshenko revoked his bill in May, pledging to improve it as the bill faced criticism for one of its provision whereby the residents of Crimea participating in elections on the occupied peninsula would have their Ukrainian citizenship revoked. The problem was that mechanisms for establishing who exactly participates in elections in Crimea have not been detailed — Ukraine does not recognize any entities of the occupational authorities in Crimea, so it cannot recognize any of their statistics as well. The Main Research and Expert Department has criticized some other provisions of the bill, including the one on prevention of double citizenship. Another source of the problem is corrupt bureaucrats. There are no widely known examples of corruption in the immigration system, but a recent case of Dina Pimakhova, ex-Deputy Head of the State Migration Service, has gained a lot of spotlight. She found herself in the epicenter of a clash between different law enforcement agencies in the late 2017. It all started with the Security Bureau of Ukraine (SBU) detaining a NABU agent as he worked undercover trying to bribe Pimakhova. Subsequently, the SBU searched a number of locations used by the NABU staff. NABU claimed that the SBU undermined its massive operation to reveal corruption in migration authorities. The SBU never provided detailed commentary while Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko accused NABU of committing violations during its investigations. The media focused on the clash between law enforcement agencies, firs and foremost, which overshadowed the details of Pimakhova’s case. According to NABU, she requested a US $30,000 bribe from a foreign applicant to falsify his documents for a Ukrainian citizenship application.
In 2014, 7,777 people got their Ukrainian passports based on their territorial origin or Presidential Decrees — these are the two possible ways to obtain Ukrainian citizenship. In 2015, the number dropped to 4,723. It barely changed in 2016 and 2017 with 4,803 and 4,581 respectively.
She was dismissed in March but that was not the end of the story. The Consolidated Register of Court Decisions contains quite a few files on her case. One describes the following episode: Pikhamova allegedly promised a citizen of Vietnam to help him get a temporary residence permit in Ukraine for a bribe of US $1,800.
When Pimakhova’s case was almost forgotten in April, NABU reported that an SBU employee was detained with a bribe of US $47,500. The detained employee was Major Oleksandr Karamushka, head of the counterintelligence sector at the Left Bank Department of the SBU in Kyiv and Kyiv Oblast. His case reveals corruption at every level: back in May 2017, SBU counterintelligence notified the local police of a scheme with illegal issuance of pregnancy certificates at a diagnostic center in Dniprovsky District of Kyiv. The SBU discovered 58 fictitious certificates issued over 10 months of 2016. These certificates helped foreigners quickly enter into fictitious marriages with Ukrainian citizens. Once the marriages were recorded officially in Ukraine, the foreigners would go back to their home countries and receive D-type visas to reunite with their families in Ukraine. According to investigators, Ukrainian women charged between US $100 and 1,000 for such services.
NABU’s operation to uncover corruption in migration authorities was developing alongside that case. Some foreigners who caught the law enforcers’ attention bribed investigators to settle their cases. These included citizens of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Georgia and Russia. The mediators they chose for bribing were NABU’s undercover agents that were at the time working at a agency offering services to streamline the issuance of documents to foreigners. These agents eventually got to Karamushka who allegedly proposed to settle the applicants’ cases for US $47,500.
Even the toughest laws will hardly eliminate corruption in Ukraine’s migration system. What Ukraine needs instead is uniform and clear rules and punishment for violations. There is a shortage of both. None of the individuals involved in the cases mentioned above have been punished so far. Some have just been dismissed. Meanwhile, the foreigners applying for Ukrainian passports start the process by focusing on the key unspoken rule of the local society: you can hardly get anything done by the state without contacts and money.
High quality. The agreement on visa-free travel with the EU has strengthened the course of the Ukrainian passport in the world