Twenty years after: The Amendments and Modifications to the Law on Croatian Citizenship

Viktor Koska
Croatian flag

When in 1991 Croatia enacted its law on Croatian citizenship, probably not even its biggest advocates expected that it would (with only minor amendments) regulate the Croatian citizenship regime for the next twenty years. Since its enactment, Croatia has gone through very turbulent political times: it seceded from the former Yugoslav federation, fought its path to independence through a violent conflict, experienced several waves of forced migrations in which several hundred thousands of its citizens changed their place, and in many cases, country of residence, changed its political system from semi-presidential to a parliamentary model of democracy, joined NATO and is on the threshold of joining the European Union. Contrary to the continuous changes that Croatia has undergone, Croatian citizenship has remained one of the rare stable institutions of Croatian politics. It was not until November 2011 that the law experienced the first substantial modification to its original text. Nevertheless, the focus of these changes was mostly on the administrative improvements and technical details regarding the implementation of the law, while the key principles for citizenship acquisition remained unchallenged. With ius sanguinis remaining the primary criteria for citizenship acquisition, a raised bar of the required residency for regular naturalization and its already existing provisions for facilitated naturalization of Croats and Croatian emigration, Croatia remains a country closed to settlement for regular migrants and open to ethnic Croats regardless of their residency.

According to the Bill on Modifications and Amendments of the Law on Croatian Citizenship there are several reasons why the amendments to the original law were introduced.  Firstly, the law had to be adjusted to the requirements set out in the Croatian Migration policy enacted on 13th July 2007. The policy foresaw that the status of foreigner with permanent residence in Croatia should be a mandatory condition for individuals applying for Croatian citizenship via the regular naturalization procedure. The Ministry of Interior argued that the residency requirement for regular naturalization contained in the 1991 LCC was in discrepancy with such a provision. The original text did not require a status of a foreigner with permanent residency, but a five years registered stay on behalf of the applicant. However, according to Article 92 of the Law on Foreigners, a foreigner can be granted a status of a foreigner with permanent residence if he/she has a five years registered residency in Croatia. Hence, this meant that the same duration of residency is required both for the acquisition of the status of a foreigner with permanent residency and for the regular naturalization. Since the naturalization is conceived to be the final stage of the foreigners’ integration into Croatian society, the legislator concluded that for citizenship acquisition a longer residency should be required. The raise in the residency requirements were further justified by invoking the practices adopted by other European countries that in their legislation have the same or even stricter residency criteria for naturalization (the Bill on modifications names the examples of Germany, Macedonia and Hungary for the eight years requirement, and Austria, Montenegro and Italy for a ten years residency requirement). However, it remains unclear from the bill why the named countries are more suitable as models for Croatia compared to the countries that have shorter periods of naturalization.

Additional reasons for the amendments stemmed from the flaws in the past implementation of the provisions that regulate facilitated naturalization of Croat co-ethnics abroad and Croatian emigration.  Since these provisions defined a very vague criteria for determination of membership of the Croat ethnic community and granted generous citizenship access to any person that can claim Croatian descent, the Ministry was concerned that citizenship was often granted to individuals who made false testimonies of ethnic identity (e.g. since 1991, Croatia has granted citizenship to more than 800,000 residents of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is a number that exceeds the number of registered ethnic Croats in this republic) or did not have a genuine connection and emotional attachment to the Croatian state. In line with The Strategy on relations of the Republic of Croatia with the Croats outside of the Republic of Croatia, the Bill emphasizes that it is in the country’s demographic interest to allow facilitated naturalization for these two categories of applicants (in comparison to regular migrants or resident foreigners). Still, considering the possible misuses of these provisions by applicants who desire Croatian citizenship for primarily instrumental purposes (such as visa-free travel and access to the labor markets of more developed countries) the law sets more precise criteria for membership of one of these groups. Croatian ethnicity can no longer be claimed by written statement of ethnic identity during the naturalization procedure. With the new provisions of Art 16, paragraph 2, candidates’ membership of the Croatian people is determined according to his or her previous declaration of ethnic membership in legal transactions, allegation of such membership, in particular public documents, protection of rights and promotion of the interests of the Croatian people, and active participation in Croatian cultural, scientific or sporting associations abroad.

In addition, while the previous text of the law did not determine the number of generations of Croatian emigration that are entitled to Croatian citizenship, the amendments limited these entitlements up to the descendants of third generation emigrants. Contrary to the previous regulations, these applicants also have to prove their familiarity with the Croatian language, Latin alphabet, Croatian culture and social system, but the same is not required for applicants applying according to their membership of the Croatian people.

The amendments also aim to resolve the remaining citizenship acquisition issues from the previous legislation related to individuals who had residency in Croatia on the 8th October 1991, but were neither Croatian citizens nor ethnic Croats. The previous legislation demanded a regular residency requirement for such applicants. However, due to the violent conflicts and increased animosities against certain minority groups in Croatia during the 1990s, many non-Croat residents left the country in this period and could not meet the named criterion for naturalization. Art. 19 of the amendments builds on the provisions of art. 94 of the Law on Foreigners which states that all foreigners who on the 8 October 1991 had permanent residence in Croatia, and who are beneficiaries of the program of return or reconstruction or housing and have returned to Croatia, may be granted with permanent residence status. Hence, all applicants that fall within the named category are considered to have satisfied the residency requirements for naturalization as well. However, the law still requires their renunciation of the previous citizenship. Considering the fact that many such applicants have acquired the citizenship of the countries in which they lived for the last two decades, and in which they fulfill most of their social rights, the renouncement of their current citizenship may represent an additional obstacle which would discourage them from applying for Croatian citizenship. Hence, it remains to be seen how this issue will be resolved in the future implementation of the law.

Finally, on 15th October 2012, a year after the enactment of the amendments, the Ministry of Interior passed a by-law which regulates the examination of the candidate’s familiarity with the Croatian language, Latin alphabet, Croatian culture and social system in the procedures for acquiring Croatian citizenship. The by-law introduces a written examination in which the applicant has to correctly answer at least ten out of fifteen questions in the test. The questions in the test are selected by the person in charge of the examination procedure who chooses them from the pool of one hundred possible questions listed in the by-law. The listed questions cover various areas of the Republic of Croatia’s social and political system, history, culture, customs, art, literature, sport, economy, geography and tourism. However, the content of the questions seem to examine applicants familiarity with the Croatian ethnic identity and values and symbols associated with a particular understanding of such identity, while the cultural references that would represent Croatia’s minorities are indirectly covered in only several questions (e.g. question 79 from the list asks applicants who is Nikola Tesla, the world famous scientist born in Smiljani near Gospić). Furthermore, the questions cover in detail different aspects of the Croatian political system but the overview of the listed questions leaves an impression that the main effort is to ensure the applicants’ familiarity with the notion that Croatia is the national state of the Croatian people, where the nation is still defined primarily in ethnic terms.  

The amendments still did not manage to overcome certain limitations of the previous text of the law. Even following the amendments, the entitlements for facilitated naturalization based on ethnic membership may still be in breach of the non-discrimination principle of the European Convention on Nationality, while certain legal practitioners criticize the law on the grounds that it is technically poorly written which leaves opportunities for arbitrary interpretations of certain sections of the law. Since the amendments have been in force for only one year, it remains to be seen how its implementation will develop, particularly following Croatia’s expected accession to EU in July this year.                                                             

For the more detailed overview of the law on Croatian citizenship and the amendments to the law see: 

Ragazzi, F., Štiks, I. and Koska, V. 2013. Country Report: Croatia, EUDO Citizenship Observatory, European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies