Imagining the nation in Serbia

Jelena Vasiljević
Graffitis in Belgrade

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.

Though citizenship confers certain rights, access to these inevitably rest on the criteria for civic membership. As Rogers Brubaker’s work on different national citizenship regime traditions has shown, the politics of citizenship mirror different ideas of nationhood.  Looking at the recent history of Serbia through the prism of its citizenship regimes may help us to understand how the varying narratives and perceptions of nationhood have been translated into the realities of political community. Newly installed citizenship regimes that regulate both the legal status and emotional attachments of citizens with their respective states may aid our understanding of the transformations the former Yugoslav republics underwent (which in the case of Serbia were especially peculiar). This account stems from the larger study on evolutionary relationship between dominant nationhood narratives and citizenship regimes in Serbia, conducted within the framework of CITSEE working papers. The study tracks the political and historical conditions that generated different ideas about consolidating ‘the body of the nation’ within different state arrangements – from unitary visions in the first Yugoslavia, through federalism in the resurrected Yugoslavia and the ‘Serbo-Yugoslavism’ of the rump Yugoslavia, up to the new-found independence of post-2000 Serbia. The following account brings short illustrations of the links between narratives on nation and citizenship related policies.

From the Yugoslav framework to an independent state

Serbia’s independence was ‘renewed’ after eighty eight years of different South-Slavic political projects. The dissolution of the former Yugoslavia (SFRY) in 1991 left only Serbia and Montenegro united in a “rump Yugoslavia”– the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). In 2003 this was reconstituted as the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro; following the independence referendum Montenegro became an independent state in June 2006, leaving Serbia little choice but to formally declare its independence on 5 June of the same year. That was followed by another ‘sovereignty redefining’ event, when Kosovo declared independence on February 2008. Serbia’s tumultuous path to independence was carved through the process of other republics seceding from Yugoslavia and leaving the union with Serbia through two disintegrations (and arguably Kosovo’s secession that followed soon after). In that sense, establishing an independent Serbia was not part of the Yugoslav secession process, but rather came as its final consequence. The absence of pro-independence rhetoric in Serbia had much to do with Slobodan Milošević regime’s strategies for staying in power in the 1990s: Milošević’s ruling Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS)claimed a legal and ideological continuity with socialist Yugoslavia. Such claims were used to justify the violent conflicts in Slovenia and Croatia at the outset of the Yugoslav break-up as the interventions of a federal army aiming to preserve the sovereignty of the federal state. Their mobilising potential remained strong throughout the conflict, and was often invoked to disguise Serbia’s own expansionist policies.

But the rhetoric of the Yugoslav legacy was of even greater domestic importance. Though often portrayed as extremely nationalistic (and it did indeed prioritise “national interests” in its agenda) the Milošević regime also relied heavily on the rhetoric of continuity with socialism and the Yugoslav ideals of toleration and multiculturalism. This paradox created a maze of competing narratives amongst the Serbian public about national interests and the best ways of achieving them. The gap between the regime’s official rhetoric and practical politics was present at even the constitutional level: while other Yugoslav republics enshrined their ethnonational policies at the highest legal level, through ’constitutional nationalism’, Serbia adopted a civic constitution in 1990 with no traces of ethnic discrimination among its citizens and with no legal implications of any major intervention in its citizenry. However, at the same time, the Constitution abolished the autonomy of two Serbian provinces (Albanian-dominated Kosovo and to a high degree multi-ethnic Vojvodina), enabled the centralisation of power, and moreover – despite its ‘civicness’ – left many stripped of the civic and political rights attached to their status as citizens (most notably Kosovo Albanians) and susceptible to various manipulations during the 1990s (this was especially the case with Serb refugees who fled in great numbers from Croatia and Bosnia, but found great difficulties in accessing Serbian citizenship and exercising basic rights in the county of their exile for a long period of time).

Overthrowing the regime of the 1990s did not bring about an immediate break with its conceptual legacies. One of these ‘burdens’ was the conception of Serbia as the homeland of people of Serb ethnicity rather than a nation state, and that as such it does not exist beyond this ethnic category. The question of ‘national interests’ revolved around this idea; the legacy of imagining the state in these terms proved a major political as well as conceptual obstacle during transformation. The forced independence that resulted from Montenegro’s departure allowed Serbia to finally translate its ethnic identity into the language of national identity. However, Serbia re-defined itself in 2006 as the Serb national state, positioning itself as the homeland of Serbs residing both within and beyond its current borders.

Imagining political community anew

In the same year it was left as an independent state, Serbia adopted a new Constitution, which not only formally, but also at a symbolic level, broke the ties with its socialist past and the “old state unions”. The adoption of the new Constitution had great symbolic importance, since it represented the first Constitution of an independent Serbia in more than a hundred years. It embraced the state symbols of nineteenth century statehood by adopting the royal coat of arms and the anthem that had been in use until 1918. These resolutions testified to the attempts at creating a sense of continuity and rootedness in the old, and thus supposedly stable, traditions of nationhood. But, in fact, many other aspects relating to the formulation and adoption of the Constitution revealed the ambiguities and contradictions of the ‘old-new’ state.

The first article of the Constitution states that the country is founded on European values, the rule of law, human and minority rights, and the principles of civic democracy. At the same time, Serbia is defined as a ‘state of Serb people and all citizens living in it’. Serbia is defined as a state built on a specific ethnic foundation , with the Serbian language and the Cyrillic alphabet as the only national language. Although the Constitution guarantees the protection of individual human rights, and values personal liberties and freedoms highly, at the same time it presupposes – by its usage of concepts like identity, culture and tradition as ontological givens – the belonging of all individuals (only) to (ethnonational) groups and cultures. The Constitution takes into account the existence of different ethnic cultures in Serbia and even insists on ethno-cultural diversity and protection of ethnic minorities (which account for 14% of the population), but in a way that implies Serbia is a state in which ethnicity is the defining feature of its citizens (‘community of communities’). ‘All citizens’ from the Preamble of the Constitution seem to be completely absorbed by ‘the Serb people’ and ‘ethnic communities in Serbia’. Not only is the civic element lost in these ‘belonging arrangements’, but the equality of all ethnic communities is in question as well. The initial differentiation between ‘the Serb people’ and other ‘ethnic communities in Serbia’ is replicated in many other legal settings. It’s not just that the two ‘categories’ of citizens are often mentioned separately, but also the nature of the state’s relation towards the members of these categories is potentially problematic. On the one hand, there are ‘ethnic communities’ that live in Serbia, with their members being citizens of Serbia. On the other, Serbia is defined as ‘a state of Serb people’, meaning not only those Serb members living and residing in Serbia, but also those of Serb ethnicity living in disapora. An illustration of this can be seen in Article 13 of the Constitution, on ‘protection of citizens and Serbs abroad’ (emphasis added). Quite clearly, it demonstrates the resolution of the Republic of Serbia to engage itself in promoting relations with those who ethnically – rather than as citizens – ‘own’ it.

It could be argued that some traces of ethnification can already be found in 2004 Serbian citizenship law (Serbia’s first law on citizenship since 1979), although its main goal was to liberalise access to citizenship in general. For certain special categories of persons, even permanent residence of the territory of Serbia was no longer a requirement for entry into citizenship. And there were no ‘ethno-cultural criteria’ to be satisfied (e.g. knowledge of the Serbian language or acceptance of Serbian culture). However, its legal vocabulary does differentiate between those belonging to the Serbian nation (understood in ethnic terms) and those belonging to any other national or ethnic group from the territory of Serbia (Art. 23), although the rules of access are the same. In 2007 the citizenship law was slightly amended, mainly to be brought in line with the Constitution, so that Art. 23 could distinguish between ethnic Serbs who ‘have the right to be admitted into citizenship’ and persons of other ethnicities from Serbia ‘who may be admitted into citizenship’ (emphasis added).

These provisions raise questions about how to validate claims of belonging to the ‘Serb people’ in general and to any other ethnicity from the territory of Serbia. The usual procedure of validation involves proving a family relationship with a resident of Serbia who claimed membership in past census records or who is affiliated with certain diaspora organisations. The Law on Diaspora and Serbs in the Region, enacted in 2009 envisages opportunities for cultural and economic cooperation, but the very existence of this law (and also of the Ministry of Diaspora) and the new formulation of ‘the Serbs in the region’ could be taken as indicative of a new politics of post-territorial ‘reassembling’ of the nation, understood primarily as the ethnic nation. Even though the Ministry of Diaspora tends to promote a more inclusive notion of diaspora, Art. 2 of the Law clearly distinguishes between two categories of that notion: citizens of the Republic of Serbia who live abroad, and members of Serb people, both from the Republic of Serbia and from the region, who emigrated, as well as their descendents. ‘Serbs from the region’ encompasses ethnic Serbs who live in the republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Romania, Albania, and Hungary. Apart from protecting the rights and interests of members of the diaspora and Serbs from the region, the Law states as its goals the ‘protection and fostering of the Serbian language and the Cyrillic alphabet, as well as Serbian cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious identity’ (Art. 4). It could be argued that such policies are in line with the new forms of ethnic nationalism, characteristic of the ‘post-territorial citizenship’ taking place in many post-Yugoslav states, where, as Ragazzi and Balalovska argue ‘the presence on the territory is not anymore a relevant criterion of belonging to the community’.

Claiming the territory

Serbian citizenship policies towards Kosovo reflected the complexity of the situation which had been developing since the NATO’s intervention in 1999. In its highest legal act as well as in its Law on citizenship, the state of Serbia does not reflect the factual changes that have occurred in the meantime, nor the fact that it has no effective control over Kosovo. Serbia sees all Kosovo residents as Serbian citizens, whereas since 2008 Kosovo has been trying to form its own citizenry based on all those resident in Kosovo. Legally and practically speaking, there is an increasing conflictual overlap between two competing citizenship regimes in Kosovo. The presence of the Serbian Ministry of Interior on the territory of Kosovo is constrained by the UN Resolution 1244. One consequence of that situation was non-inclusion of Kosovo residents in the Schengen visa liberalisation regime that had been granted to Serbia in December 2009. According to the EU, since it could not exercise control over the territory, the Serbian Ministry of Interior was not in a position to issue biometric passports to Kosovo residents, required for visa-free travel into the Schengen space. This has created a curious situation where the whole population of Kosovo is affected by discriminatory citizenship practices such as exclusion of people (or, at least, tacit complicity in the EU imposed exclusion) from one region from the benefits enjoyed by all other citizens. In addition, the very same region is regarded as an integral part of Serbia’s territory – which is mentioned even in the Constitution’s Preamble, and all its citizens as Serbian citizens. Kosovo’s authorities meanwhile issue their own documents and passports which Serbia does not recognise.

Changing narratives of citizenship

The changing citizenship regimes in Serbia illustrate the ways in which various narratives of nationhood run parallel to political changes, at times reinforcing them, at times creating obstacles for their implementation, but nevertheless providing a means by which they may be interpreted. The legislature reflects this interplay, as a way of codifying and legitimising political directions taken by a polity at one time. Citizenship regimes are important manifestations of these directions since their codification sends messages about polity’s boundaries, internal arrangements and management of constitutive citizens. The political and military involvement of Serbia in the 1990s created a complex and problematic set of nationhood narratives with competing visions of the Serbian polity. They reflected the overall political and social chaos in which all Serbian citizens lived through the 1990s. Democratic changes brought the hope of resolving these issues, but it has proved difficult to achieve a ‘fresh start’ for the newly independent Serbian state and its citizenry. Many of the old narratives are still present, but will inevitably change, form different patterns of interaction with each other, and finally be forced, for better or worse, to leave space for the new ‘European’ one to find its place within this matrix of narratives.


Jelena Vasiljević works at the University of Edinburgh as a Research Fellow on the CITSEE project. She holds an MPhil in Anthropology from the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, Serbia, and is currently working on her PhD thesis Culture and Citizenship - an Anthropological Perspective. She is also Research Assistant at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory at the University of Belgrade.

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