Defining the nation: constructing citizenship in the new Croatia

Viktor Koska
Old Zagreb

This is an extended summary of a longer paper that was originally published in the CITSEE Working Paper Series and is available for download here.

The states that emerged after the dissolution of Yugoslavia had to resolve two major challenges.  In addition to consolidating their newly established statehoods, the new states had to determine the membership criteria of their initial citizenry.  This latter issue had been addressed by the nationalist elites during the 1980s and early 1990s, most of whom sought to map ethnic communities onto state borders, often in defiance of  demographic realities. The attempts to realize these visions moved the process of state dissolution towards violent conflicts. It was within this context that the political elites of the emerging states would use their citizenship policies as a tool of political and ethnic engineering.

Croatia was no exception. Throughout the 1990s, its primary political goals were issues relating to state formation and consolidation. The democratic changes in 2000 brought new priorities to the public agenda: EU integration became a goal of the highest priority. The first stage of Croatian citizenship regime development was marked by state practices described by Robert Hayden as “constitutional nationalism”, resulting in ethnic engineering through citizenship policies. This was followed by first self-exclusion and then exclusion of the largest minority group in Croatia, namely Croatian Serbs, from membership in the Croatian political community. The second, post-2000 stage was marked by liberalization of citizenship policies towards this group. However, a distinctive feature of Croatian citizenship regime during both these stages was the stability of its core citizenship legislation, which remained virtually unchanged.

Defining membership criteria in independent Croatia

The constitutive stage of Croatian citizenship regime arguably began with the enactment of the constitutive state acts in 1990 and 1991 and ended with the democratic changes in 2000. The primary question of this stage of citizenship development was to define who should be granted (and who should be denied) citizenship in the new Croatian state.

The new Croatian Constitution passed in 1990 offered preliminary answers to these questions. Croatia was defined as a national state of Croatian people and members of other nations and minorities who are its citizens. This definition confirmed Croats as the titular nation of the new state and recognized the presence of other minority nations. With this formulation, Croatian Serbs lost the status of a constitutive nation in Croatia which they had enjoyed in socialist Croatia and were thus demoted to the status of national minority. As Dejan Jović emphasises, the Yugoslav socialist model did not differentiate between the majorities and minorities; one of the biggest fears of all Yugoslavia’s nations was that they might become minorities in the emerging polities. Therefore, such provisions were not welcomed by the majority of Croatian Serbs. Propaganda from Belgrade exaggerated such fears, claiming that the new Croatian state was a recreation of Nazi-sponsored Croatia that committed large-scale massacres against Serbs during the Second World War. In the end, material and military support from Serbia and the disintegration of the Yugoslav army, coupled with the aggressive nationalist rhetoric of new Croatian government, led the majority of Croatian Serbs into a violent rebellion against the Croatian authorities and their self-exclusion from the state.

The expanded notion of the Croatian ethnic nation was a second consequence of the new definition of the Croatian state. During the 1990s the notion of diaspora was introduced into official political discourse in order to promote the historical link between the Croatian ethnic community, both generally and especially in the region (e.g. Bosnia-Herzegovina) and the Croatian state. This imagined link between the diaspora and the Homeland Croatia, together with the ethnic foundations of the emerging nation state, was institutionalized and promoted under the special provisions of Law on Croatian Citizenship enacted in 1991.

The two major principles of the new citizenship legislation were legal continuity with the previous republican citizenship and Croat ethnicity. The principle of legal continuity assured that all previous holders of the former Croatian republican citizenship would automatically become Croatian citizens. However, legislators were aware that this provision might leave a number of Croatian residents outside the initial Croatian citizenry. According to the unity principle of the former federal citizenship regime, all Yugoslav citizens, besides their federal citizenship, were assigned a republican citizenship. However, within the context of the federal regime, republican citizenship had little practical significance for most citizens. Therefore, during the cross-republic migrations citizens often did not regulate their republican citizenships according to their new residency. To allow for ethnic Croats residing in Croatia and not having its citizenship, and in order to include even those Croats living outside Croatia into its citizenship regime, the legislators introduced the Croat ethnicity criterion. The law did not provide any such measures for non-Croat residents (mostly Serbs) in Croatia, turning them overnight from full citizens into legal or illegal aliens. So, while the articles on naturalization imposed very rigid criteria for naturalization of regular foreigners, special procedures were provided for naturalization of non-resident Croats. Facilitated naturalization procedures secured open citizenship access for two major groups of Croats living outside the state borders: Croat émigrés and members of Croat ethnic communities residing outside Croatia (mostly Croats from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), but also for members of Croat communities in other former Yugoslav republics). Furthermore, the LCC assigned great discretionary powers to the administrative officials responsible for determining whether the LCC criteria, including the Croat ethnicity principle, have actually been met. With such strong discretionary provisions assigned to bureaucracy, the Croatian citizenship regime became subject to abuses, false statements and counterfeit declarations. This was particularly evident during the police procedures for determination of whether the applicant meets the criteria of affiliation with Croatian ethnic community, set by Art 30, para 4. During these procedures police recognized the documents issued by Roman Catholic Church proving the applicants affiliation with the church as a proof of membership to Croatian nation. On the one hand such practices encouraged some citizens to falsely testify religious affiliation in order to gain access to citizenship, while on the other hand they did not consider the possibility that membership to the Croatian community does not necessarily include affiliation to Roman Catholic Church or any religious affiliation at all. 

Besides privileging access to citizenship status, during the 1990s HDZ actively promoted special diaspora political rights in Croatia. These policies included measures such as the political (over)representation of diasporain the Croatian parliament— practically it meant securing the seats for HDZ —introduced by the electoral law of 1995. They also included direct material and financial incentives for social and political institutions of Croats in BiH. Such practices were part of the wider policies which, as Francesco Ragazzi argues, used citizenship as a tool for Croatian exercise of the politics of exterritorial annexation of part of BiH. By emphasizing its responsibilities to its citizens abroad, Croatia continued to support the administration of BiH cantons with Croat majority including their educational, social welfare and health care services. Such practices resulted with a de facto subordination of these cantons to the Croatian state.

While the Croatian citizenship regime actively encouraged the integration of ethnic Croats, the policies of the 1990s towards Serb minority were not as generous. This was partially the outcome of the named Serb self-exclusion and violent rebellion which further fuelled Croat animosities towards this group. However, the discriminatory policies continued long after the Storm military operation in 1995, which ended the Serb rebellion in Croatia. In the aftermath at least 200,000 Serbs were forced to leave Croatia and seek refuge in neighbouring states. Following their flight, Croatia adopted a set of complex administrative procedures which obstructed Serb refugees’ applications for Croatian documents and certificates of Croatian citizenship. Even though legally considered Croatian citizens, without the relevant documents they could not exercise any of their rights. These and other discriminatory policies impeded the return and reintegration of Serb refugees to Croatia. The demographic outcomes of such policies towards the Serb minority were evident in the last national census, when the share of Serbs in total Croatian population dropped from 12 % in 1991 to only 4.5 % in 2001.

After the peaceful reintegration of the formerly occupied territories into the Croatian legal and political system in 1998 (and especially after the death of Franjo Tuđman and the defeat of his party at the 2000 parliamentary elections), the policies towards the Serbs started to improve. The conditions of the 1995 Dayton agreement meant that the  HDZ had to alter its politics toward BiH. Croatia regained full control over its internationally recognized borders, while the political outcomes of the 1990s resulted in a high ethnic homogeneity of Croatian citizenry. In this context, and under strong pressure from the international community, Croatia began to soften its administrative attitude towards Serb refugees.

In early 2000 HDZs government was replaced by the centre-left Coalition which opened the path for further institutional reforms. With the new constitutional changes Croatia’s political system moved from being semi-presidential towards a parliamentary model of democracy, with all political parties agreeing that a proportional electoral system should be used. At this time the wider social and political consensus over the EU integration as a primary national priority was reached. Within the new institutional framework and with EU as a top national priority, previously uncontested citizenship issues came to the fore. The question was no longer about membership, but of the rights that different categories of citizen should have.

Equal citizens?

At this point, the question of diaspora rights became a major issue. Previously uncontested ethnic arguments were faced with fierce opposition from liberal and left-wing social and political elites. Pro-diaspora arguments, such as the Croatian obligation to compensate for the diaspora’s active participation in the process of state formation, their economic contributions to Croatian economy and help provided during the Homeland war were contested as such, but also from the perspective of the classic ‘civic’ theories on citizenship. The opposition argued that it was highly problematic to legitimize the right to vote of persons who will not have to face the consequences of their choice. Finally, the diaspora rights discourse became particularly controversial once it became evident that it was Croats from BiH, not Croatian émigrés, who would mostly exercise these rights. Due to the close connections between HDZ and Bosnian Croats developed in the 1990s, this category of citizens developed into the stable HDZ’s constituency. Opposition parties claimed that the HDZ’s advocacy of diaspora voting rights was motivated primarily by the electoral advantages it would gain. This issue developed into the one of the primary topics of the 2007 Parliamentary elections. Even though the opposition party lost the elections, the public debate continued, resulting in the constitutional changes in 2010, when diaspora representation was reduced to three seats in parliament.

On the other hand, after 2000 policies towards the Serb minority became more inclusive, resulting in the gradual expansion of the scope of rights granted to national minorities. During the left-centre coalition Government (2000-2003), Parliament passed a set of Constitutional laws granting cultural autonomy, political representation, education and the official recognition of minority languages. The gradual change of the discourse towards the Serb minority was particularly evident following the elections in 2003, when the right-wing HDZ formed a Coalition with the minority representatives in order to win the elections. The recent developments in bilateral relations between Serbia and Croatia also reveal the strong desire of the Croatian authorities to solve the remaining open issues regarding Serb refugees. The 2010 constitutional changes allowed Serbs to run in elections on general and not minority lists, which leaves an opportunity for Serbs to secure more than the constitutionally granted minimum three seats in Parliament.

A new Croatia?

Considering the developments in the area of minority rights, and the debates over restrictions for non-resident Croats, what conclusions can be drawn about the current Croatian citizenship regime? It would be premature to conclude that Croatia is de-ethnicizing its citizenship and moving towards a more civic or multicultural concept. The arguments of the political actors discussed here regarding diaspora rights have typically concerned only the issue of political representation and the right to vote.

The named changes in rights dimension of regime were all implemented without serious alterations of LCC: in the last two decades its ethnocentric dimension was not seriously contested by any of the Croatian political parties. All provisions continue to testify to the Croatian state as a primarily national state of Croats regardless of their residency. Furthermore, the changes of the regime towards the Serb minority should also be analysed through the lenses of particular circumstances and external pressures, rather than from the positions of the changed self-perception of the Croatian nation or the nature of the state. The electoral changes towards the proportional system empowered minority representatives with a de facto pivotal position within the Croatian party system. Their bargaining position was thus much stronger, which enabled them to successfully negotiate a widening of their rights. Furthermore, the tragic consequences of the 1990s greatly reduced the number of Serbs in Croatia, who do not pose any serious political nor symbolical threat to Croatian statehood. As Igor Štiks argues, current Croatian political model resembles Sammy Smooha’s concept of ethnic democracy in which the expansion of minority rights is a merely a symbolic gesture of the dominant uncontested ethnic majority in power.

The EU’s impact on the minority regime should not be neglected either. External pressure was responsible for widening the scope of multicultural policies and the promotion of minority rights. However, even during the negotiation process the ethnic dimensions of Croatian citizenship with possible discriminatory provisions was neither seriously contested nor altered. It may be argued that the stability of the Croatian citizenship legislation reveals the ongoing process of Croatian invention of, in the words of Rogers Brubaker, ‘the tradition of nationhood’ which is based on the idea that the Croatian state is a product of the “centennial” aspirations of the ethnic Croat community to have its own national state. How this conception will interact with EU integration, and the introduction of European citizenship marked by rights offered to EU citizens and their larger mobility, remains to be seen.


Viktor Koska is a teaching and research assistant and PhD candidate at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Zagreb. He completed a Masters of Science (MSc) in Forced Migration program at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. The major fields of his academic and professional interests are forced migration, national minorities and citizenship studies.

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* Photo: Old Zagreb by Jarrett Blaustein.