Taking advantage of vague laws and lack of enforcement, many Ukrainians hedge their citizenship bets – keeping their ties to the homeland while becoming citizens of other nations such as Israel, Russia or Panama.
Just as no good mother would give up her children, Ukraine does not want to share its people with other countries when it comes to citizenship. By constitution, there can be only one legal citizenship for those born to Ukrainian parents.
Despite that, hundreds of thousands of people – migrants, businessmen and even Verkhovna Rada deputies – seem to enjoy the best of both worlds with a second and sometimes a third passport other than from the homeland.
Among people suspected of living a “double life” were Kateryna Yushchenko, the wife of President Victor Yushchenko; Yevhen Chervonenko, deputy head of the Kyiv City Administration; and Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, to name a few. They all denied wrongdoing.
Some choose to keep two identifications for family reasons and visa-free travel. Others do not want to get involved with the bureaucratic process of ditching citizenship. And yet there are some that bypass the law to avoid paying taxes or worse.
They make the most of Ukraine’s vague legislation. They act on the principle of “what’s not banned is allowed,” said Yuri Korchev, a lawyer with the Integrites firm.
The number of Ukrainians with more than one passport ranges from 300,000 to a few million, by various estimates. “They [have second passports] from Romania, Russia, Israel and other neighboring states,” said Victor Shvets, lawyer and deputy from the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko. For security reasons, a person should be allowed only one national citizenship, said Shvets, who drafted changes to the respective law, already approved by the Rada in the first reading on June 2.
“Events in Georgia last year have spurred [the debate], because some countries decide that they can protect their citizens’ rights on the territory of other states,” said Shvets, a reference to the Kremlin’s justification for military intervention into Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. Prior to the conflict, Russia had been handing out passports in the troubled regions.
Shvets’ precautions are bolstered by claims that Russia has been expanding into Ukraine’s Crimea – home to its naval base – by granting citizenship to beef up its influence in the region. Mustafa Dzhemilev, a deputy of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine party from Crimea, estimated that 200,000 people have dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship. Russian consulates deny the charges.
Arseniy Yatseniuk, a presidential hopeful in the upcoming election in 2010, said that multiple citizenships are worse than polygamy. “If we introduce dual citizenship, where would Ukrainian soldiers serve? In Siberia or perhaps on the territories where there is a war with a neighbor-state?” Yatseniuk said on the Savik Shuster talk show at TRK Ukraine TV channel in March. “If you love your country and you are a real Ukrainian, how can you even think of about it?”
For many, however, dual citizenship is a way of retaining cultural, spiritual and economic bonds with Ukraine, the country many have left behind.
Thousands of migrants from western Ukraine who end up in the European Union’s strawberry fields or poultry farms want to remain Ukrainian citizens, despite their country’s failure to provide them with a work place and a decent salary.
Kostyantyn, who did not want to be identified because he has dual citizenships, has been living and working in finance in the United States for seven years. He obtained American citizenship last year, but kept his Ukrainian passport because of “the problems in the consulate and high level of bureaucracy.” Kostyantyn does not think there’s any harm in having two passports: “Ukrainian politicians are playing fools’ games without any reason, as usual.”
But from the legal point of view, cons outweigh pros when it comes to dual citizenships, said Korchev of the Integrites law firm. “These people have to choose laws and regulations of which country they have to comply with. In practice, when they don’t act upon laws of one country, they seek protection from another,” explained Korchev.
The infamous story of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko is a case in point. Accused of money laundering in colossal amounts, he was detained in Switzerland while holding a Panamanian passport. In a California prison follwing his conviction in U.S. federal court on multi-million dollar fraud, he is still implicated in Ukraine on corruption charges, including his suspected role in two high-profile murders.
To prevent criminals from jetting off to their second homes abroad, Shvets suggested imposing criminal responsibility for failing to report the second passport. So if the bill becomes law, those who do not declare other passports by deadline risk spending up to five years in prison and paying a large fine.
But for now, current legal norms “state clearly that a direct ban on dual citizenship is absent,” said Korchev.
Moreover, Ukraine has ratified the European Convention on Citizenship in 2006, according to which member-states are required to recognize multiple citizenship in certain cases. For example, children born to parents from different countries are allowed to keep two citizenships. Also, second citizenship can be obtained automatically through marriage.
Most people, however, don’t want to play with fire and choose to keep their other identities secret. There are exceptions.
When confronted by journalists in 2008, Ukraine’s billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky did not deny that he also had an Israeli passport. It offers visa-free travel to many developed countries. He famously said in the interview to the online publication Ukrainska Pravda that “one must be an idiot not to take advantage of” the conflict between the Constitution and Ukrainian law.
Some firms deduced they can do business by capitalizing on the legal confusion and offering a second legal home in Panama or the Commonwealth of Dominica for $100,000 or more.
These countries offer a lucrative list of benefits in return for investments, which include visa-free entry to some 100 countries, tax breaks and pension schemes. There is a variety of consulting offices in Kyiv offering their help for those whose interest in the Caribbean islands spreads beyond a two-week holiday.