Russia strips climate advocate of citizenship
The Washington Post November 5, 2022
Climate activist Arshak Makichyan built a reputation as the Russian answer to Greta Thunberg, staging lonely weekly protests in central Moscow and often getting arrested.
Makichyan, 28, who fled Russia to Berlin in March following the invasion of Ukraine, is still pushing for climate action, but as of last week, the government says he is no longer Russian. In an unusual case, a Moscow court has decided to strip Makichyan along with his father and brother, who both remain in Russia, of their citizenship, in what appears to be payback for his public antiwar statements.
Makichyan, who is Armenian by birth, emigrated to Russia as a baby in 1995 and holds only a Russian passport, meaning the decision has rendered him effectively stateless. “I am at a loss as what to do going forward,” Makichyan told The Washington Post in a phone interview, saying that a refugee passport in Germany could restrict his climate activism.
After the February invasion of Ukraine, Makichyan, like many Russian activists, made the difficult decision to flee their country. He and his young wife, a fellow activist, had married the very same day Russian troops poured into Ukraine. They both continued to speak out against the war from Germany.
A trial to review his citizenship began in his absence over the summer, and a Moscow court decided to revoke it last month, accusing Makichyan of having provided false information to immigration authorities, despite being just 10 years old when his father made the citizenship application. The court only informed his lawyer of their decision a week later.
“This is my identity. I have engaged in activism in Russia for four years. I have lived all my life in Russia, and despite everything, I see myself in its future, when Russia becomes free,” Makichyan said. The court also revoked the citizenship of his father and brother. Like Makichyan, neither his father or brother hold any other passport and it is unclear what fate awaits them in Moscow.
“The court applied the law very liberally in this case,” Olga Podoplelova, a lawyer for Makichyan, told The Post, saying that they plan to appeal the decision. “Under normal circumstances, we could easily defend the citizenship of Arshak, his father and brother.”
But these are not normal circumstances. Since the invasion, Russian authorities have blatantly and repeatedly disregarded the law, arresting people simply for standing in the vicinity of an antigovernment protest, and forcing people ineligible for military service to sign up for the army. Ethnic minorities have also come under fire.
“Since I was a kid, I felt, well, not totally Russian,” said Makichyan. “I felt that I had no right to participate in political life, because if I said anything, people would say immediately that I am Armenian and that I should go back to my own country.”
“But I continued because I somehow felt responsible. I understood that if there are no changes in Russia, then we would not be able to fight the climate crisis,” he said. “Russia is part of the global world and needs a voice.”
To a certain extent, he succeeded. He drew media attention to his weekly protests and was invited to speak at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2019. He also helped inspire other climate protests in cities across Russia.
Makichyan said Russian authorities were concerned about any form of youth protest no matter how small. “It seems to me that the main threat was that I stood there and simply existed. Now they want to officially say that I do not exist at all, at least not on paper,” he said.
The Russian parliament passed a new bill amending citizenship rules this spring. The new law created what political analyst Ekaterina Schulman calls an “inequality” between two types of citizenship, enabling authorities to easily move against citizens who had previously held a foreign passport.
“When Makichyan became a nuisance, the authorities evidently checked his documents. They asked, what can be done with him? The answer: His citizenship can be annulled. It is much simpler than opening a criminal case,” said Schulman.
Lawyers say there is a practice that precedes the 2022 amendment of “catching out” citizens of predominantly ex-Soviet states with minor administrative faults. There have allegedly been instances of officials claiming to have lost such individuals’ passports and forcing them to reapply for citizenship. “This is a form of ethnic discrimination,” said Podoplelova.
“Many migrants believe that Russian citizenship gives them more rights or protects them. But this is an illusion” said Valentina Chupik, the director of Tong Jahoni, a nonprofit organization that helps Central Asian migrants in Russia.
Makichyan warned that his case could signal the emergence of a new tool of political repression against Kremlin critics. “The Arshak case is a very dangerous precedent, given the Soviet experience of depriving dissidents of their citizenship” said Podoplelova.
This spring, Russian lawmaker Vyacheslav Volodin called critics of the invasion “traitors” and suggested they be stripped of their citizenship. He lamented there was “no procedure for revoking citizenship and preventing them from entering our country.”
Schulman said it is unlikely Makichyan’s case signals a new wave of repression, highlighting the rigidity of Russia’s legal framework. “If you are born the Russian citizen, if you have the citizenship from birth, then there is no way, at least for now, that the state can legally divest you of this status,” said Schulman.