Between Minority Rights and Civil Liberties: Russia’s Discourse Over “Nationality” Registration and the Internal Passport

Peer-reviewed Journal Article

(2005) Between Minority Rights and Civil Liberties: Russia’s Discourse Over “Nationality” Registration and the Internal Passport, Nationalities Papers 33(2): 211–229.

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The registration of citizens’ ethnicity (‘nationality’) in official documents was commonplace and often obligatory in the Soviet Union, and the practice continued in the Russian Federation through the 1990s. In 1997, the Yeltsin government replaced the Soviet internal passport with a new one not featuring the ‘nationality’ entry. The new document was met with an instant wave of protests from Russia’s regions, above all the ethnically defined federal subjects. They objected to the removal of the ‘nationality’ entry, and also because the passport (unlike the Soviet one) did not have a section in the federal subject’s own language(s) besides Russian, and did not display the emblems of the region in question.


The internal passport was introduced in the Soviet Union in 1932, and has since served as the citizens’ main identity document. Since nationality was the fifth entry in these documents, following surname, name, patronymic and date and place of birth, it has been known as the ‘fifth point’ (pyatiy punkt; pyataya grafa). A passport holder was not in a position where he could choose what nationality to enter (contrary to what has been the practice at censuses). If both parents were of the same nationality, that would also be his nationality. If they were of different nationalities, he could choose only between these two. The choice would be his to make when he received his first passport at the age of 16. In the public debates over the abolition of the ‘fifth point’, a variety of arguments for and against have been put forward. Some have argued that ethnicity should be a matter of individual privacy; others have pointed out that citizens have a constitutional right to express their ethnic identity. Some have held that ethnicity should not be politically institutionalized; others have said that if it is not, vulnerable ethnic groups will be threatened by assimilation into stronger groups.


This article examines the reactions to the new passport that were heard from Russia’s ethnically defined regions – in particular on the absence the of the ‘nationality’ entry – and contextualize this center-region conflict in relation to broader issues of balancing minority protection vs. civil liberties. The period considered begins with the October 1997 introduction of the passport, and ends with the final solution of the conflict, in spring 2001. Thus, the time-span covers a period of rapid change in Russian center-region relations: the transfer of power from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, and the latter’s reassertion of central power over the regions. Focus is on regions that were particularly prominent in challenging the federal center on the passport issue, and where the different ethnic composition of the populations has created different political dynamics.


The article first gives a background to the federal decision to abolish the ‘fifth point’, before it lays out the discourse in the regions over the new passport and the ‘nationality’ entry. Thereafter, the political context is explored in some more detail, as the controversy is seen in light of the ‘nationalizing’ trend in the regions in the 1990s, and the issue of ethnic re-identification and ethnicity registration. The last two sections describe how the conflict came to an end, and how the Council of Europe’s experts have assessed the solution and its compatibility with the Council’s Framework Convention on Minority Rights.