Russia threatens to strip anti-war protester of citizenship

The case of Armenia-born Arshak Makichyan could set a new precedent with activists warning of a new tactic to silence dissent.

Climate activist Arshak Makichyan takes part in a single-person demonstration in central Moscow, Russia
Climate activist Arshak Makichyan takes part in a single-person demonstration in central Moscow, Russia on February 7, 2020 [Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters]

On February 24, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

That same day, Arshak Makichyan, who had earned the title of Moscow’s “lone climate protester”, married his girlfriend, Polina Oleinikova – and both were quick to join peace protests despite a widespread Russian crackdown on dissent.

In March, as the atmosphere for anyone publicly opposed to Moscow’s so-called “special operation” grew more repressive, the couple decided to go to Germany.

Now, Makichyan, who was born in Armenia but has Russian citizenship, fears he may never be able to return home to Moscow.

On June 27, the question of Makichyan’s citizenship will be raised at a court hearing in Russia’s capital. While officials say he illegally obtained his citizenship, he along with other activists claim the case is politically motivated.

No stranger to being arrested, Makichyan, who had been inspired by the ideas of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, was detained at a climate protest deemed unlawful by authorities in 2019. He was also detained in January over a one-man picket against Russian intervention in Kazakhstan. And then on February 25, he and his wife were detained while leaving their house and fined for taking part in unauthorised rallies.

Protests are tightly restricted in Russia and demonstrators must seek the approval of authorities before holding an event.

Makichyan, now in his late 20s, has lived in Moscow most of his life and held Russian citizenship since he was 10 years old. He believes the government wants to strip him of his nationality not only for his outspoken position, but as a warning to other foreign-born dissidents.

“I was against this war, and I was against this war publicly, but I think this case is not about me,” Makichyan told Al Jazeera. “It’s about millions of people like Armenians and many, many other nationalities in Russia. The government warns them to be afraid, to be silent.”

“I grew up in Russian culture, but I don’t think it’s about being Russian or Armenian or whatever; it’s about having the same rights for living in Russia. There are millions of Armenians and other nationalities in Russia, and if I lose my citizenship on the grounds that I was against the war, they can use the same instrument against many, many other people.”

Russia has a large foreign-born population, with most immigrants hailing from ex-Soviet republics such as Armenia, Ukraine and Tajikistan.

If Makichyan’s suspicions are correct, revoking his citizenship would be an unprecedented decision that could clear the way for further abuses in the future.

According to the constitution, Russian nationals cannot be deprived of citizenship, and those who are citizens by birth – as well as those who acquire it later in life – enjoy equal rights.

But sometimes it happens that due to bureaucratic errors, citizens discover their passports have been issued “illegally”.

“Citizenship annulment cases are very common in relation to those people who received citizenship not by birth, but for other reasons,” said Olga Podoplelova, head of litigation at the NGO Russia Behind Bars.

“Migration services often lose documents and thus try to cover up their mistakes,” Podoplelova told Al Jazeera. “This practice has been repeatedly condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, and in general, citizens often win cases against the Ministry of the Interior on this basis.”

However, the case against Makichyan is being brought under Article 22 of the Citizenship Law. This maintains that the citizen provided false statements in their original application, making it void. He is accused of living at a different address to the one given in his application, while other supporting documents have apparently been lost.

At the time of publishing, the Russian Prosecutor General’s office had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

In 2018, fearing a gang war, Russia’s Ministry of the Interior used Article 22 to deprive Tariel Oniani, a crime lord of Georgian origin, of his citizenship on the grounds that he acquired it dishonestly. Russia extradited him to Spain, where he was wanted for organised crime charges.

But according to Podoplelova, Makichyan’s case marks the first time such a move has been made against a political activist.

“We have before us a very simple and convenient scheme for the state, which can be applied to almost any activist who has received Russian citizenship not by birth,” she explained. “So far, this is the first such case, but the migration authorities have already mastered the scheme. It’s more frequent use for political purposes is a matter of time.”

More commonly, opponents of the Russian government have found themselves facing criminal charges, which they claim are politically motivated.

This includes possession of narcotics, which demands a low threshold of evidence. Other charges include hate speech, fraud, and shows of “extremism” (which can be merely sharing a post on social media). Opposition leader Alexey Navalny is currently serving nine years on charges of embezzlement.

According to human rights observer OVD-Info, more than 15,000 Russians have been arrested for protest actions since the start of the war. Many are awaiting trial.

Meanwhile, politicians have already proposed rescinding unpatriotic Russians’ citizenship more straightforwardly.

In April, lawmaker Vyacheslav Volodin called for “traitors” against Moscow’s “special operation” to be stripped of their citizenship, and lamented there was “no procedure for revoking citizenship and preventing them from entering our country”.

Volodin earlier tried to pass a law for revoking citizenship in 2017, but it was dropped as unconstitutional.

In December last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has referred to those opposed to his war as pro-Western “scum” and “traitors”, introduced amendments to the citizenship law.

He proposed launching an “institute of citizenship termination”, and called for the grounds for deprivation of acquired citizenship to be expanded to include treason, espionage and drug trafficking.

These proposals are yet to be made law.

Also last year, lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein asked on his Telegram channel, “Why do you need a Russian passport if you hate your country and your people?”

But Makichyan says he loves his country.

“I’ve been doing activism for three years and risking my freedom for a beautiful Russian future, and Russia is very important for me,” he said.

“Of course, I am going to fight [this case]. We are trying to make this case as visible and loud as possible because the only way to influence the government’s decision is public pressure. And we are trying to reach out to as many people as possible who can be affected by this case, and it’s millions of people in Russia.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies