The iron cage
By German Sadulayev, special to Prague Watchdog
When friends from the Chechen Republic and Dagestan told me how hard it was for them to get passports and visas for travel abroad, I must admit that I only half believed them. I thought: surely that can’t be a problem nowadays? There are plenty of commercial firms willing to resolve any such issues in exchange for a fee.
But one day I told my friends: yes, you’re right: the situation regarding “foreign passports” [zagranpasport = a passport for foreign travel, tr.] really is bad.
It is possible to get such a passport in the Chechen Republic, and even quickly. But only in exchange for money. Or very slowly, which means never. That in itself is barbarous and absurd. Why should one pay a bribe for a passport? What is a Russian passport, in particular, one that is issued for foreign travel? It’s a document by means of which the state can track my movements around the world. A Russian passport is like the electronic tags that criminals are made to wear, or the microchip that is implanted under their skin. It means limiting a person’s freedom.
While it is understandable that personal freedom should be restricted in the interests of migration control and so on, it is hard to see why we should pay the government for our fetters, and even pay bribes to officials. That strikes me as a cynical ploy.
The essence of the practice is as follows:
There are very few jobs in the Chechen Republic. Certainly, there are not enough to go round. The shortage of stable and traditionally prestigious employment in government and municipal services is particularly acute. Even the job of petty clerk in some administrative office is regarded as great stroke of luck. And good luck costs money. It literally has to be paid for.
There exists what amounts more or less to an official price list for every job, from that of policeman (3,000 USD) to that of police chief (150,000 USD). Incidentally, this is not a new practice in history: it may be recalled that the medieval French and English kings also sold government posts, almost by auction.
In the Caucasus it is all much more subtle. There are no auctions. You can only find out what the pricing is if you have a friend or relative in the system. Through such contacts it is also possible to hand over cash. Thus the successful candidate must satisfy two criteria: money and connections.
And so the lucky new applicant receives his post of office desk head – higher or lower depending on the level of his connections and the amount he has paid. What happens next? He has to recoup the money that has been invested. That, too, is understood. The official’s immediate superior also understands it: he too received his meagre, pathetic share of the pie by paying for his post. So what sort of control can there be, what discipline?
Where is the official to find the money? If he has no other assets, he must sell his “services” – in other words, the functions of state power. And when he is employed in the issuing of foreign passports, it is obvious that some murky business will result.
In Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, the character Voland says that Muscovites have been corrupted by the “apartment question”. What has corrupted the Chechens is the oil question. Every official sees his post as an oilfield, and pumps away to his heart’s content ...
In addition, the federal centre never sends enough passport application forms. That is a complaint frequently heard from Chechen officials. And it is most likely justified.
So people who hope to obtain a foreign passport in the Chechen Republic quickly and free of charge are probably going to be disappointed. And someone who is registered as a resident of the Chechen Republic will not be able to obtain one in another region of Russia, because in Russia a passport can only be issued in the region where one is resident. This may not be written in the Constitution, but in practice it is so. One Russian citizen who found himself in this situation had to go all the way to the Constitutional Court in order to obtain satisfaction. After several years and several court proceedings, the well-informed vagrant won his case and managed to get a passport. But the case had no effect on the process in general.
If you live in the Chechen Republic, you must get your foreign passport in the Chechen Republic. If you want to pay for it, you must either pay the going rate or wait until more application forms arrive and the very busy officials who own passport-issuing “oilfields” have plenty of free time on their hands.
But what about visas? What problems can there be with those? A visa is obtained at the consulate of a foreign state. The Chechen government has nothing to do with it. I said as much, and began to help my friends.
Arriving in St. Petersburg, I called a commercial firm engaged in visa support. My choice fell not on a tourist agency, but on a specialist company whose advertisement loudly promised “the solution of complex issues related to visas and foreign passports.”
The situation with passports was clear, I thought – this firm was unlikely to be able to help there. And so I inquired about visas. Could they help with an application for tourist visas to Finland for two families? Yes, of course, the voice replied. And it wouldn‘t matter that the people weren’t from St. Petersburg? I asked. No problem, the voice said. It didn’t matter, they could get visas for tourists from any region of Russia.
Wonderful! I exclaimed, in delight. My friends were from other regions, I said. The Chechen Republic and Dagestan.
There was silence at the other end of the line. Then the voice said they were sorry but in my case they couldn’t be of any assistance. But why? I asked in surprise. And I heard the voice say: We only issue visas to citizens of Russia.
It was as though I had fallen back into the past – to the 1990s, when I often heard phrases like Only for citizens of Russia! We only take citizens of Russia! This document is issued only to citizens of Russia! I remember that when I applied for temporary residence I was classified by OVIR, the visa registration office, as a foreigner, even though I had a Soviet Russian passport. This was solely on account of my place of birth and my nationality. In those days, however, there was a self-proclaimed state of Ichkeria, and a war was being fought.
So now what? Putting it all down to the employee’s incompetence, I asked to speak to his boss. And learned many interesting things.
The boss heard what I had to say, and then gently explained that I was, of course, right in a way – technically speaking, residents of the Chechen Republic and Dagestan were also citizens of the Russian Federation. But in reality there were special procedures in place for them. In addition, his company was instructed not to engage in the processing of documents for travel abroad by residents of the North Caucasus region.
You must realize, he told me, that even if we do the paperwork and apply for the visas, you won’t get them. Not a single European country gives tourist visas to Chechens, especially if they’re travelling as families: the risk that they might want to stay abroad as illegal immigrants or asylum seekers is too great.
Thus the cell door is locked on both sides – inside and out.
When a Russian domestic flight arrives from the North Caucasus in Moscow, the capital city of our motherland, the passengers on the flight do not go straight to the arrivals hall like other Russian passengers, but to a special closed holding area. After reclaiming their baggage, the passengers are “filtered” – their belongings are screened all over again, their passports are checked, and all the data is recorded on computers.
Formerly only Chechens were discriminated against in this way, for their separatism and for having installed a rebellious state on the soil of the Russian Federation. Now the residents of the entire North Caucasus region are grouped along with political defectors, military deserters and potential enemies of the Russian state.
Such is the progress that has been made since the 1990s. It represents one more stage along the road the Russian government has travelled in the direction of the country’s complete collapse. Sometimes it has the air of being a deliberate policy. If it continues like this, the borders of Russia will soon end at Moscow’s inner ring road.
German Sadulayev is a writer. He was born in Shali and now lives in St Petersburg.
(Translation by DM)