New laws passed in Russia make it easier for native speakers and those who can prove they or their families have lived within the borders of the former Russian empire or Soviet Union to get citizenship.
The amendments were signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, who annexed the Russian-speaking peninsula of Crimea in Ukraine last month and has asserted his right to protect Russian speakers across the former Soviet bloc.
The law, pushed through in just three weeks, “establishes a simplified procedure to get Russian citizenship for foreign citizens and those without any citizenship who are … recognised as native speakers of Russian,” the Kremlin said.
The fast-track procedure is planned to take three months, Russian television reported. It requires those who receive passports to give up any other citizenship.
To apply, people have to go through an interview to prove they are native speakers of Russian, using the language in a “family and household context and in cultural spheres”.
They also need to prove that “they or their direct relatives live full-time or previously lived in Russia”, within its Soviet borders or the borders of the Russian empire before the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.
Pro-Russian protesters in Crimea and Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking eastern regions have cited discrimination and problems with the legal status of the Russian language when asking Moscow to intervene in the crisis.
Putin signed the amendments into law after they were passed by MPs in the upper and lower houses of parliament this month, the Kremlin said.
Russia has previously made it difficult to gain citizenship for those who consider themselves ethnic Russians but were living outside its borders when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.
The new law allows applicants to bypass a lengthy and bureaucratic procedure in order to be eligible for citizenship.
Rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina said she welcomed the simplified procedure but cautioned it was unclear what criteria would be used to determine who is a native speaker.
The new rules do not apply to one famous recipient of a fast-track Russian passport, French actor Gerard Depardieu, who was granted a passport by Putin after he complained about French tax laws.