UPDATE 1-Russia to make citizenship easier for native Russian speakers

Thu Mar 6, 2014 4:36am EST

MOSCOW, March 6 (Reuters) - Russia is making it easier for native Russian speakers who have lived in Russia or the former Soviet Union to get citizenship, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Thursday, a signal to the West that Moscow is not backing down over Ukraine.

Not mentioning Ukraine by name, Medvedev told a government meeting that Russia would simplify the citizenship procedures for some foreigners - a measure to show defiance of Western demands for Moscow to back down over its neighbour, a country many Russians see as an extension of their own.

"We are taking another step in this direction, we are discussing a draft federal law to simplify obtaining citizenship of the Russian Federation for foreign citizens or stateless persons who are recognised as native Russian speakers," he told a government meeting.

He said the simplified procedures, which could see the granting of citizenship in three months, would apply to people who had lived in Russia or on territory that was once part of the Russian empire or the Soviet Union.

Highly qualified professionals and specialists who had graduated from Russian or Soviet universities or institutes would take precedence, he added.

Russian forces have taken control of Ukraine's southern region of Crimea. The West has ridiculed President Vladimir Putin's denial that they are Russian servicemen who answer t Moscow.

Russia has based its strategy in Ukraine on its right to defend compatriots there - Russian-speakers in southern and eastern regions who traditionally have closer ties to Moscow than to the leaders in Kiev seeking stronger relations with the European Union.

Shaken by losing a struggle for influence with the West in Ukraine, Moscow has accused the West of allowing Ukrainian nationalists or "fascists" to harass Russian-speakers.

Russian politicians have repeatedly urged Moscow to offer Russian-speaking Ukrainians protection since ousted leader Viktor Yanukovich was deposed on Feb. 22 and a new pro-EU government was appointed. It is not clear how many Ukrainians have applied for citizenship since the crisis began.

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