Ashgabat, 5 April 2013 (nCa) — The debate on dual nationality between Turkmenistan and Russia has been simmering for years. There are indications now that the question could be capped one way or the other in the near future.
The jagged edges of the issue suggest that Russia treats the question of dual nationality as a political lever. The humanitarian aspect is missing from the Russian conversation. That has been the basic flaw since the signing of the dual nationality agreement between Ashgabat and Moscow in 1993.
The Russian politicians and media keep this question on the side burner, ready for turning up the heat when required. This is an easy way out, a sign of intellectual feebleness, in situations that require delicate and complicated negotiations. The Russian policymakers seem to think that by adding the question of dual nationality to any equation they can tip the scales in their favour.
However, not everyone in Russia is a picador.
Many years ago, when this selfsame question was in its hot mode, a fact finding mission came from Russia. It was led by the deputy head of the Russian information service ITAR-TASS. I had the chance to have two long meetings with him, one before the start of his work and the other just a day before he was leaving.
In the first meeting he was confident that he would be able to nail the issue on hard facts and find sufficient grounds to recommend to his government that some tough action must be taken to ‘safeguard the rights and interests of the Russian citizens.’
In the last meeting, he was a different man. He said in a surprised tone, “No one wants to be rescued. They are happy here.”
When I shook hand to leave, he added, “Actually, it is a good thing. Even if they migrate to Russia, they would always be treated as outsiders; they will feel alien at every step.”
A couple of years later, I was invited for lunch by a senior Russian diplomat with great sense of humour and greater sense of fairness. He joked, “I had an upset stomach this morning and the first thought was that I should raise the question of dual nationality with Turkmenistan. It would be a great distraction for my stomach.”
“People want to enjoy everything Turkmenistan has to offer and they also don’t want to pay for the Russian visa; that is dual citizenship for you,” he laughed sardonically.
A Russian professor of international relations put it slightly differently, “People can have their cake and eat it too. I have no issues with that. However, to put hands on two cakes at once is rather indecorous.”
The diplomatic aspects of dual nationality debate are currently under discussion. President Putin raised the matter several weeks ago in his telephone conversation with President Berdymuhamedov of Turkmenistan. The ultimate outcome would depend on how far both the governments understand and appreciate each other’s point of view.
Here, we would like to look at the broader context.
First, let’s see how the question of dual nationality is treated by countries around the world.
In many countries including Azerbaijan, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Nepal, the Netherlands, and Norway, if a citizen acquires another nationality, he or she is likely to lose their primary citizenship automatically.
The laws in Singapore, Malaysia and South Africa are similar. One risks losing the original nationality on acquiring a second one. Ditto Montenegro.
Germany and Austria vigorously discourage dual nationality.
Spain allows dual citizenship with several South American countries because of ethnic and linguistic affinity but if their citizens get the nationality of any other country, they are likely to lose the Spanish citizenship after a period of three years.
In the following 66 countries, dual citizenship is generally not recognized after US naturalization:
Algeria, Andorra, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Bhutan, Bolivia, Botswana, Brunei, Burundi, Cameron, Chile, China, Congo, Cuba, Djibouti, Equitorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Monaco, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, New Guinea, Nicaragua, Niger, North Korea, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Palau, Papua, Principe Island, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Korea, Sudan, Swaziland, Sweden, Tonga, Uganda, Ukraine, UAE, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
To allow or not to allow dual nationality is a question best decided by each country after careful consideration of internal interests and external relations. No country in the world actively encourages its citizens to gather another nationality and more than 60% of the countries either outright ban or at least vigorously discourage the pursuit of a second nationality.
A country that is easy on dual nationality is not automatically a more democratic country and a country that prohibits dual nationality is not automatically a less democratic country. It is not the matter of democracy at all – a large number of other factors are at play here.
The US department of state website, on the subject of dual nationality, says, “. . . the U.S. Government does not endorse dual nationality as a matter of policy because of the problems which it may cause. Claims of other countries upon dual-national U.S. citizens often place them in situations where their obligations to one country are in conflict with the laws of the other.”
This policy statement, from a government that considers itself the global champion of democracy and human rights, cannot be taken lightly. There are genuine concerns.
One such concern is trans-boundary crime and drug smuggling.
There was the case of ‘Chef’ and ‘Mac,’ and their four major accomplices. They were all holders of dual citizenship and ran a drug smuggling ring that spanned Afghanistan, Pakistan, Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand, and the United States. They eluded the authorities for years behind the shield of dual citizenship. To bust the ring, the US Marshals had to be flown in simultaneously to three countries, and a precisely coordinated operation by the elite police units in each country had to take place. Some of the culprits are probably still rotting in a Miami prison.
The human trafficking also overlaps dual nationality perimeters. There are cases every day around the world where people, mostly young females, are taken to another country as a spouse or relative and sold into white slavery.
Another set of complexities arises when a person of dual nationality violates the law in a third country. Who should prosecute him? Who should sentence him? Who should bear the responsibility for his actions? Who should be asked to compensate the losses caused by him?
The potential of financial and banking fraud involving persons of dual nationality is also a real thing. In a high profile case several years ago, some people with dual Turkmen and Russian nationality pilfered millions of dollars from a Turkmen bank, transferred it to Russia and onward to third countries. They also used the cover of dual nationality to flee the authorities in both the countries though they were nabbed, over the years, one by one, in long and expensive drives to catch them. Some parts of the case are still being considered in courts of law.
There are many other reasons why dual nationality should be the exception rather than the rule. Suffice it to say that each country has the right to decide as to how far and in which direction it wants to go in allowing dual or multiple citizenships.
There is another side of the question: What the holders of dual nationality actually want?
A case in point here is the border delimitation between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. When the actual work on border demarcation started, there were several villages and settlements that straddled the agreed border line. The inhabitants were given the choice to decide whether they want to be on the Turkmen side of the Uzbek side. Almost without any exception, everyone decided to assume Turkmen nationality.
Perhaps, given choice, most of the holders of the dual Turkmen and Russian nationality would opt in favour of Turkmenistan if they are given an easy way to travel between the two countries. This is the point the sides must work on.
In the present debate, Russia cannot claim a moral high ground.
In 2009, when Russia saw that the natural gas market in Europe was in a slump and the demand of gas in the European market was down for the foreseeable future, it did something that falls far outside the norms of civilized interaction between countries.
The question facing Gazprom, the largest taxpayer in Russia, at that time was: Should it approach Turkmenistan candidly and ask to be released of the long-term contractual obligations for the purchase of gas because the markets where it was selling the Turkmen gas had gone dry; or should it engineer an accident and blame everything on Turkmenistan for ‘disruption’ of supplies?
The question was both moral and legal, equal parts each.
Gazprom took the unethical and illegal path – it turned the tap shut without giving sufficient notice to Turkmenistan to trim the supplies from the wellheads and base compressor. The accumulated pressure in the pipeline system resulted in a series of accidents and blasts, claiming the life of one engineer and serious injuries to several others. There was the loss of property and infrastructure amounting to dozens of millions of dollars.
On can ask, what is the relationship between a gas trade deal and a dual nationality agreement?
The connection is obvious — It is a matter of principle; a principle that constitutes the core of all relationships: The sanctity of an agreement.
As Russia violated this principle in engineering a pipeline accident, so it did in breaking the terms on which the dual nationality agreement between Turkmenistan was based.
The principle clause was that Russia will not grant citizenship to any Turkmen citizen without the consent of the Turkmen government but thousands of passports have been issued without consulting the Turkmen side.
Each issuance of such passport constitutes a violation of the agreement. Therefore, in effect, Russia has violated the agreement thousands of times.
The ongoing debate must not focus on scoring points against each others.
At stake is the future of thousands of people who are depending on the wise judgment of authorities on both sides. Instead of making it a game of political brinkmanship, the Russian side would be well advised to let the sense of fairness take lead.