Russia May Expedite Passports For Ukraine's Ethnic Russians

With no end in sight to the Ukraine crisis, Russian lawmakers say they're considering a bill to make it easier for ethnic Russians and other Ukrainians to obtain Russian passports.

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And here's the latest in Ukraine's political crisis. Russian lawmakers are considering making it easier for ethnic Russians and other Ukrainians to obtain Russian passports. Moscow has already offered passports to Ukraine's riot police, who are facing heavy criticism after fatalities in Kiev's Independence Square last month. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, many in Crimea have reasons for wanting a Russian passport that have little to do with the current crisis.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The high metal gates surrounding the Russian consulate in Simferopol is not keeping out a clamoring throng of Crimeans eager for a Russian passport, but a small crowd is forming around the bulletin board listing the documents required for getting one. It helps to have Russians in the family, which is not a problem for a lot of people in this corner of the world.

One sign prominently displayed says after the threats against the Berkut, or Ukrainian riot police, following last month's bloodshed, passports are available for Berkut members. Underneath the sign is a handwritten list of dozens of names, but no contact numbers. The Russian interior ministry reportedly said last week that they consulate here had already begun handing out passports to Berkut members and their families.

In nearby Lenin Square, unlike in pro-European Western Ukraine, the giant statue of the former Communist leader here is in no danger of being pulled down. Seventy-year-old Anatoly Nikolaevich says the passport plan is a good idea, although at his age he probably doesn't need one. Like many men of his generation, Nikolaevich served in the Soviet Army. He says Crimea isn't anywhere near being in danger of collapse, but greater connections with Russia are always welcome.

ANATOLY NIKOLAEVICH: (Through interpreter) You know, in my heart I am Russian. My ancestors, grandfathers, great grandparents are buried in Russia. We lived on the border with Ukraine and we always considered ourselves one people. Now we have this mess with those hotheads in Kiev condemning the Russian language.

KENYON: Nikolaevich says he wants a more democratic Ukraine and he doesn't see the need for Crimea to become part of Russia, and he agrees with both Western and Russian diplomats who say this doesn't have to be a competition between Russia and the West.

NIKOLAEVICH: (Through interpreter) Look, I have a grandson. He wants to go to America to study and work. We're allowing him to go. We trust the Americans. But I don't understand why they would incite this crisis with Russia.

KENYON: In Kiev, officials have warned that Moscow has a political agenda behind its passport offer. Similar arrangements were made for the Georgian areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which only Russia and a few other countries recognize as independent from Tbilisi. Some argue granting more passports would bolster Russia's rationale for intervening in Crimea because it would then have more citizens to protect.

But in a children's park and zoo in the Crimean capital, 30-year-old Pavel Dikteriov says he doesn't see an Machiavellian motives behind the passport offer.

PAVEL DIKTERIOV: (Through interpreter) Yes, I would try to get Russian citizenship. I have relatives in Russia. I have relatives in Ukraine. But for some reason Russia is closer to me, politically and economically.

KENYON: He stresses that people here want Russian passports for economic reasons, more job opportunities, easier cross-border trade, not because they're eager to abandon Crimea. Meanwhile, Russian media report a growing debate inside the country on the merits of extending expedited passport approvals to Ukrainians, which may be why officials say expanding the program will be considered gradually. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Simferopol.

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