A propiska is a permit issued by the authorities that registers the bearer's place of residence. Its use is a legacy of the Tsarist government's internal passport regime implemented to control population movements throughout the Empire, particularly to manage urbanisation in the late 19th century. Restrictions on peasants' movements were lifted in 1906 and the entire internal passport system was abandoned shortly after the 1917 Revolution. In December 1932, however, the Soviet government aped its predecessors by re-introducing internal passports.
Under the Soviets, internal passports were issued at the age of 16, subject to renewal every five years, with a propiska, or residency permit stamped inside. No change in residence could be made without official permission and failure to register was subject to fines or imprisonment. A valid propiska was required in order to work, get married or gain access to education or social services. Individuals were required to present their passports and propiski for internal travel or on demand by authorities or employers.
Propiska was particularly difficult to obtain for certain places, such as Moscow. Many people were refused propiska for Moscow virtually as a rule, including ex-convicts, political dissidents and Roma. Because these documents were so difficult to get, and were sometimes arbitrarily withdrawn, bribery and fake marriages became common methods of circum-venting the law.
Propiska was officially abolished when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. However, several successor states continue to use propiska or some form of official permission to register one's place of residence, including Belarus, the Russian Federation and Kyrgyzstan. Armenia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine have abolished the need to apply for permission, but still require that residence be registered. Georgia has done away with all forms of registration, and in Moldova the practice was declared unconstitutional in May 1997.
Registration laws are often contradictory or unclear, enforced haphazardly or simply ignored. In Kazakhstan, the government can still refuse registration in certain places, especially the capital. In Ukraine, access to social benefits is tied to place of registration, meaning individuals can lose access to social benefits after moving. In Belarus, refugees have had difficulties obtaining their propiski because of housing shortages and bureaucratic difficulties. On the other hand, in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the propiska laws still on the books have been increasingly ignored over the past several years.
In the Russian Federation, courts have tried to address the issues of residence registration and freedom of movement on several occasions. The Russian Constitutional Court has abolished propiska five times since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, yet legislatures at various levels have continued to issue laws aimed at controlling migration and residency that are blatantly unconstitutional, and a propiska-like system is still in place across many parts of the country. Between 30 and 40 of Russia's 89 regions have laws unconstitutionally restricting local migration or registration, including Moscow City and Moscow District, St. Petersburg, Krasnodar and Stavropol Territories and Voronezh District.
Residence registration in Russia is restricted by a web of local, regional and national regulations that, among other things, detail the amount of floor space legally required before a propiska can be issued and list who can sponsor newcomers to an area. The enormous fees charged for registration are another common restrictive measure. These fees have usually been highest in urban centres and areas that might receive influxes of population due to ethnic conflict. In some cases, they could be higher than the cost of a house, running to several thousand dollars. In April 1996, the Moscow District decreased their registration fees to 300 times the minimum monthly wage (approximately 25,000 Russan rubles or 890 euros).
On February 2, 1998, the Constitutional Court declared un-constitutional restrictions on duration of registration at place of sojourn and floor space quotas, as well as regional restrictions. Moscow Mayor Luzhkov responded by declaring publicly that he would refuse to obey the Court's ruling.
Several groups in particular have been singled out repeatedly by international observers as being at risk from the restrictive practices associated with propiska. According to the Council of Europe, the "shadowy" propiska regulations in Russia have led to numerous "allegations of extortion, or of discriminatory treatment of refugees, asylum-seekers, or anyone who happens not to look like a Slav". Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the OSCE-ODIHR have all made similar observations, with the latter also identifying Roma as being at particular risk. The homeless, including people who have been cheated out of their apartments and those released from prison, are also often unable to register with authorities.
Observers have repeatedly noted that refugees, particularly those from outside the CIS and Baltic States and ethnic minorities, are highly unlikely to be granted propiska. At the same time, local authorities often illegally refuse to allow asylum seekers to register their claims without a propiska. Human rights groups have commented on several occasions that ethnic minorities and asylum seekers without propiska are favourite targets of the Russian police for harassment, mistreatment and detention.
Although the propiska situation has improved in some states, many concerns remain. A registration system hampered by bureaucratic inefficiencies and legal confusion leads to discriminatory practices, bribery and extortion. Those who are already society's most vulnerable are put at even greater risk when the lack of propiska can mean unemployment, denial of social services and living with the threat of arrest or forcible removal. The propiska's restrictive nature is contrary to Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of movement - and as economic difficulties and ethnic tensions continue to mount, particularly in Russia, the inability to move freely can have life-threatening consequences.
Susan Brazier is a freelance writer on human rights and refugee issues.