Roma and propiska in Ukraine

03 April 1999

Evgenija Navrotskaja1

Coercive residence permits in Ukraine, a legacy of feudal society preserved by the Soviet Union, continue to provide a precondition for forced migration in many countries of the former Soviet Union. In the next pages, Evgenija Navrotskaja describes problems related to residence permits that Roma face in Ukraine. Susan Brazier sets Ukraine in wider, post-Soviet context.

A system of official compulsory registration of residence coercively attaches Ukrainian citizens to one municipality in Ukraine or excludes them from all of them. The residence permit, commonly referred to by its Soviet-era name of propiska, is a stamp from the relevant authorities in the identification card with the bearer's address. Its existence is justification for a range of abuses of citizens of Ukraine and constitutes a haphazard, bureaucratic, potentially discriminatory registration system. Because of the historical and cultural circumstances of Roma in Ukraine, this group as a whole is more vulnerable to abusive or discriminatory treatment; officials can and often do use residence permits as a tool of deliberate discrimination or harassment against them. Roma without residence permits are deprived of a range of rights, since the bureaucratic machinery of the Ukrainian administration requires a valid registration of the place of residence when citizens apply for social benefits including pension, subsidies, coupons for food and child care aid, or try to vote. Moreover, recent international compensation for Romani Holocaust victims was distributed in Ukraine using a system of requirements which included a valid residence permit. The existence of the residence permit regime and its restrictive application places many Roma in Ukraine under the threat of expulsion from their municipalities of residence, and police have conducted a number of abusive raids since 1991 to check residence permits. In the course of such raids, Roma have been physically abused.

Ukraine officially gave up the institution of propiska by adopting a new regulation on identification documents on September 2, 1993, in force since then. In addition, Article 17 of the Civil Code of Ukraine states, "The place of citizens' permanent or usual stay is considered their place of residence. The place of residence of citizens under the age of fifteen is considered the place of residence of their parents." In practice there is little difference between the old Soviet system of residence permits and the present Ukrainian regime. Some members of the legal community in Ukraine additionally claim the existence of internal instructions of the Ministry of Interior which elaborate the right of the state to implement restrictions on the freedom of movement within the country on persons who do not have Ukrainian citizenship, as well as restrictions on citizens of Ukraine.

Lack of a valid residence permit can lead to deprivation of rights as fundamental as the right to vote. The September 1997 law "On Election of the Peoples' Deputies of Ukraine", establishes conditions under which persons without a residence permit may not vote. Paragraph 5 of Article 3 of this Law and Article 76 of the Constitution of Ukraine stipulate that, in order to become voters, citizens of Ukraine must have lived in Ukraine for the last five years. However, Paragraph 3 of Article 18 of the same Law provides that all citizens of Ukraine who permanently reside on the territory of a particular constituency at the moment of the completion of the lists of voters should be listed as voters. Paragraph 8 of the same Article states that voters who have arrived in the territory of a constituency after the lists of voters have been completed, are added to these lists if they submit documents proving their identity and place of residence. Article 23 provides that subscription lists in support of political parties, party blocs or candidates to the Verkhovna Rada - the Ukrainian parliament - must contain data about the place of residence of the applicant as well as the place of residence of the voter. Thus there are grounds to believe that citizens of Ukraine who live in Ukraine but do not have a valid residence permit are not eligible to vote.

The residence permit stamp came to play a key role in the lives of Ukrainian Roma recently, when Romani victims of atrocities during World War II were offered compensation by the Swiss Special Fund for Needy Victims of the Holocaust. Eligibility for this compensation was determined by an application committee which operated in conjunction with the Cabinet of Ministers of the Ukrainian government. Among the documents required as part of the application procedure, Roma had to supply a copy of their identification card with a valid permanent residence stamp. The application committee rejected the applications of more than thirty Romani Holocaust victims on the basis of the fact that they could not produce a permanent residence stamp. For example, 66-year-old Maria Etvesh, 62-year-old Vojtekh Etvesh and 60-year-old Jozef Balog from the village of Bovgradj, Uzhorod district, could not submit their applications for compensation by the Holocaust fund because they did not have valid permanent residence stamps.

Before 1921, when Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union, many Roma were involved in handicraft-oriented trades such as cobbling and smithing. Some Roma made bells for livestock, as well as knives and agricultural tools. Roma also often mended pots, metal dishes, and barrels. All of these pursuits depend on a high degree of mobility, since Romani smiths could rarely survive on the business of one farming community. Some Roma worked as musicians, another profession where mobility is crucial. When Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union, Roma came under pressure from Soviet authorities to end pursuit of what are now referred to as "traditional crafts" and Roma, like other Soviet citizens, increasingly became employees of factories. Some traditional crafts, such as music, continued during the Soviet Union. In other instances, Roma worked as street-sweepers. A 1946 decree explicitly mentioned Romani vagrants and stipulated punishment of four to five years "corrective labour" for those Roma who avoided state work. This decree forced those Roma who still pursued traditional crafts to settle. Many of the ramshackle Romani settlements visible today on the edges of Transcarpathian towns date from this wave of settlement; Roma built houses, often without social assistance, using pieces of plywood, tin-plated sheet metal, wooden boards, pieces of brick and stone, and these often housed large Romani extended families. Generally these Romani settlements became attached to the nearby municipality, but often the Roma living there did not receive a stamp to legitimise their residence there. What constituted work in the Soviet Union was, however, value-laden; while Romani smithing was virtually stamped out, Roma continued to work as musicians during the existence of the Soviet Union.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many factories closed, producing an army of unemployed people, among them Roma. Ukrainian Roma cannot find work due both to the difficult economic situation, and to discrimination. The lack of a residence stamp also deprived many Roma of the possibility of employment in their hometown or anywhere else for that matter. Until recently, work was tied to legal residence permits. Until the pertinent criminal code provision was abolished in 1997, prospective employers were required to check residence permits before hiring an individual. The labour code was amended the same year to the effect that employers are now prohibited from requesting residence permits as a condition of employment. Many impoverished Roma now make their living by collecting scrap metal or wood, and many travel to large cities to beg on the streets and in railway stations. One such destination is Moscow in Russia, but Roma can only travel there legally if they have a passport; one condition for acquiring a passport is that the applicant produce a valid identification card.

Officially, town and village authorities may not reject applications for residence permits unless the municipality or district in question is subject to special regulations for military reasons or due to the proximity of a national border. However, in practice, local officials often refuse to issue a residence permit under various pretexts. Although residence permits are in theory issued free of charge, in many areas it is possible to obtain residence permit only after bribing officials.

Local officials in Ukraine have also confiscated identification documents - including residence permits - from Roma. According to the Uzhorod-based organisation Romani Yag, in July 1997, a local policeman of the village of Kibljary, Transcarpathian region of Ukraine, allegedly acting on the orders of the chief of the area police, collected the identification cards of local Roma because, according to him, these did not have the stamp "Citizen of Ukraine" in them. As their identification cards had been issued while the Soviet Union was still in existence, Roma without such stamps could not prove that they were citizens of Ukraine. Local authorities did not, however, give the documents back. Now, each time these Roma want to travel abroad, often to Moscow either in the hope of finding seasonal work or to beg, they must acquire a temporary document from the village council proving the place of their residence. This, however, is rarely taken as a serious official document. The Roma of Kibljary have in fact been reduced to a state of dependence on local officials.

The example of the Roma of Kibljary is not an isolated case. During the heavy floods in November 1998 (see "Snapshots from around Europe", Roma Rights Autumn 1998) in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine, local authorities demanded that many Romani flood victims from the village of Varijevo turn in their water-soaked identification cards. Since then, without identification cards, the Roma have not been able to receive any social aid. To receive a new identification card with a valid residence stamp, local officials reportedly charge Roma 40 to 45 hrivnyas (approximately 10 to 11.5 euros), although the official price for a new identification card is 4.4 hrivnyas (approximately 1.1 euros).

Independent Ukraine took its first significant step toward the abolition of restrictive residence permits on July 7, 1992, when it adopted the Law "On Amendments to the Criminal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Administrative Code of the Ukrainian SSR." This Law struck out Article 196, which provided for criminal responsibility for violation of the passport system. Nevertheless, the police in Ukraine, especially in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine, have frequently raided Romani settlements since 1991, often in direct connection with the residence permit issue. Policemen have forcefully entered Romani houses allegedly to check if Roma had valid residence permits and, during such raids, physically abused and illegally detained individuals (See ERRC Country Report The Misery of Law: The Rights of Roma in the Transcarpathian Region of Ukraine). The existence of the residence permit regime - as well as the fact that many Roma are unable to procure the proper stamp - frequently becomes the justification for police checks, extraction of bribes, or the exacting of a fine. According to the organisation Romani Yag, such raids have recently become less frequent in Transcarpathia. The last raid known to the ERRC took place in summer 1998, when police raided a Romani settlement in the village of Korolevo, in the Vinogradovo district. Most of the men were out of the village on seasonal work on that day. During the raid, police officers allegedly beat women and children and demanded that inhabitants of the Romani settlement give them money. The existence of the residence permit regime allows the police to feel justified in raiding Romani settlements.

The ERRC knows of no instances in which Roma were forcibly expelled from municipalities by authorities on the basis of the lack of a local residence permit. In a number of instances, Roma have fled their homes for periods of several months following raids to check residence permits. The fact that high numbers of Roma in Transcarpathian Ukraine do not have residence permits for the places where they live, puts many of them permanently under threat of expulsion from their homes. Expulsions of Roma by non-Roma have taken place in Transcarpathia since Ukrainian independence in 1991, and in at least one such pogrom in Velyka Dobron in 1995, police officers were present and did not intervene.

Even in cases where Roma are in possession of valid documents, they are often unable to claim entitlements for which the residence permit is necessary. For example, schools in Uzhorod, western Ukraine, often refuse to accept Romani children as pupils, even though their local residence stamp should give them the right to attend that school. As a result, these children do not go to school at all.

When Ukrainian officials try to justify the system of residence permits, they often claim that the residence permit regime helps to fight crime. In reality, through the institution of residence permit stamps, the Ukrainian state controls citizens' movement within the country and exercises surveillance over them. Seen in this light, Roma in Ukraine today live not far from a state of serfdom.


  1. Evgenija Navrotskaja is a field researcher for the Uzhorod-based Romani organisation Romani Yag.

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