The Janus face of Slovenian Citizenship

Tomaž Deželan
A statue on a Ljubljana bridge

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 citizenship regime in Slovenia can seem to have two faces. For those who focus on its numerous malfunctions, the citizenship regime seems xenophobic, even apartheid-like. By contrast, those who focus on the initial determination characterise the system as progressive and civic. In this essay I will argue that there is truth in both perceptions: the citizenship regime in independent Slovenia reflects all these conflicting elements.

In the name of the nation

Determining the criteria for membership of the political community was an integral part of the state-building process. The demise of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) and Belgrade’s contestation of Slovenia’s right to self-determination pressured Ljubljana to create a coherent citizenship regime for the secession period and after it. The foundations for the post-independence citizenship regime demonstrated a clear link between the new citizenship laws and the concept of an ethnically-defined nation. Though certain ‘civic’ elements of the transitional provisions were present in the citizenship legislation, several clear references to the ethno-national concept attest to the main concerns behind the act. Slovenian citizenship has been significantly shaped by the events leading to the proclamation of independence in June 1991.

The Slovenian language was a persistent issue during the nation-building process, particularly during the pre-secession clashes between Ljubljana and Belgrade. Also, Slovenian national continuity could only be traced through language, in a cultural sense, which in turn reinforced the dominant ethno-cultural conception of the nation. The concept of the ‘core nation’, which is clearly distinguished from non-Slovene permanent residents in Slovenia (composed mostly of people coming from other former Yugoslav republics), had a huge impact on the determination of membership criteria. Despite this, Slovenia eventually adopted a ‘milder’ ethnic model, in order to prevent the discontent of non-Slovene residents but also to gain crucial approval from the international community for respecting democratic standards.

The incipient citizenship legislation was in line with SFRY legislation that established a bifurcated citizenship regime consisting of republican and federal citizenship. Though more or less symbolic during the Yugoslav times, the republican citizenship proved to be of vital importance in the secession process. The new citizenship regime in Slovenia did not directly lead to widespread discrimination, but nonetheless contributed to a situation where there were severe human rights violations, the most grave of which was the erasure of citizens of other former Yugoslav republics. In February 1992, around 25,000 people were erased from the register of permanent residents without notification (a figure which includes those who decided not to acquire Slovenian citizenship and those who did but were denied it). The legislature’s decision to avoid resolving the issue of permanent residents in the Citizenship Act as well as in the aliens act in order to regulate it within the succession agreements, signed only a decade later, opened the doors to this kind of administrative discrimination against non-Slovene residents.

Victims of party politics

Slovenian citizenship legislation has changed several times since its initial determination. The right-wing political parties, in their attempts to create a ‘true’ ethno-cultural Slovenian community, have focussed on those citizens from the former Yugoslav republics who have not adopted the Slovenian language. In right-wing discourse in Slovenia there was (and still is) a common perception that the population lacks language skills due to its insufficient loyalty, ‘laziness’ and ‘disrespect’ of the Slovenian state. The main political debates concerning citizenship therefore revolved around the question of what criteria should be used to define the nation; the political left argued it should be based on civic and liberal values, as opposed to the ethnic and communitarian agenda promoted by the right. It also involved questions relating to dual citizenship and the status of former residents without Slovenian republican citizenship (Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Macedonians, Albanians and Montenegrins).

In these debates we can discern two trends: the first is the attempt to resolve deficiencies in the new legislation by eliminating anachronisms which originated from the previous socialist regime or from hastily drafted pre-independence legislation, such as authoritarian administrative procedures, undemocratic practices, and discriminatory provisions; the second affirms the ethno-cultural criteria, most notably the importance of Slovenian language proficiency and favouritism towards members of the ethnic Slovenian ethnic community abroad.

The growth of Slovenia’s reputation as a modern liberal democracy created fertile conditions for increased ethno-national self-confidence. Favouritism towards ethnic Slovenes in the process of acquisition of citizenship and frequent references to the Slovenian nation as distinct from the body of all Slovenian citizens in the legal documents testify to such practice. The perception of a core nation that is not contained by the territorial borders is evident in privileges offered to ethnic Slovenes residing abroad, which contrasts unfavourably with the habitual breach of rights of ethnic minorities and discrimination in regulating their residential and citizenship status. In spite of this, Slovenia tries to retain its good image in the European Union and the international community.

Marginalised groups

During the 1990s there was an atmosphere of increasing distrust towards individuals from other former Yugoslav republics. This was exacerbated by the populist discourse of the government, and was not opposed by parties on the Left, who were unwilling to take any political risks. The result was a series of discriminatory practices by state officials and the bureaucracy. The penetration of ethno-nationalism into Slovenian administrative structures also determined the fate of refugees from the conflict zones of the former SFRY. These refugees were given shelter only as ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDP), a status that underlined the temporary nature of their residence in Slovenia.

Regulation of former refugees continues to be problematic, and the same is true for migrant workers, most of whom come from other post-Yugoslav states. Never treated as members of local communities, the majority of them work in unsafe conditions; often they do not benefit from the welfare system they contribute to. They are systemically deprived of the opportunity to become permanent residents and portrayed just as Gastarbeiter, staying thus perpetually in the position of temporary guest workers.

The attitude of the Slovenian political establishment and society at large is reflected in the (non-)regulation of “modern minorities” originating from the former Yugoslav republics, as opposed to recognised “autochthonous” minorities such as Italians or Hungarians. The Roma are also given special protection, although its members still face continuous discrimination and marginalisation. Nevertheless, the post-independence national self-confidence seriously limited the true protection of minority rights, since the largest “modern” one, consisting of the non-Slovene South-Slavic community, is given no such status despite the frequent advocacy of this measure by monitoring institutions (e.g. Commissioner for Human Rights, the Slovenian Human Rights Ombudsman, the Helsinki monitor, and Amnesty International).

The European window of opportunity

After independence the process of European integration became the overarching political goal of the newly established polity, which generated a rare consensus among political parties. The European Union was envisioned as a core political project, a cultural leap from something ‘Balkan’ and ‘rotten’ to something ‘heavenly’ to which the Slovenian nation belongs. Slovenia introduced several mechanisms vital to its democratic character in the accession period. The European Commission pushed for a number of actions (on issues such as minorities, refugees, and those ‘erased’ from the registers) that led to some important reforms. However, there is a widespread belief that European integration did not have a profound effect on the Slovenian citizenship regime, primarily due to occurrences pertaining to the ‘erased’ issue as well as the disregard for modern minorities. This image is reinforced by the reported unreadiness of the Slovenian government to cooperate with other institutions in the field of human and minority rights.

Nevertheless, Slovenian citizenship regime was significantly altered by accession to the EU. The introduction of European citizenship, similar to the Yugoslav two-tiered citizenship regime, meant new rights for workers, and a tranche of important citizenship rights for Slovenian citizens within the EU as well as for previously less protected groups and individuals. European citizenship also brought voting rights for various EU citizens in Slovenia, and Slovenian citizens in other EU states at local and European elections. This presented a major shift in the definition of the political community. As a spill-over effect, the right to vote, but not to run for office, in local elections was given to the third country nationals as well. Though being a marginal step in practice, it nevertheless enabled previously excluded categories to participate for the first time in the political process in Slovenia.

Whether a dent in the nationalists’ agenda or not, the introduction of the new regime introduced several democratic innovations into the system. Equal opportunities advocates warmly welcomed the introduction of an ‘irregular zipper’ system and gender quotas for lists of candidates in the case of elections to the European parliament. Visible proof of the contribution these changes have made is the success of women in European parliamentary elections, though this is yet to be seen on other levels. Another innovation, though still at low levels, is the experimentation with the lists of candidates. Some smaller parties, in order to assert their relevance, have begun to nominate candidates with very diverse profiles (non-Caucasians, non-citizens, gays and lesbians). The trend continued also in this year’s local elections where, surprisingly, several established political parties of the left nominated “unconventional” profiles and won important posts. The most evident example is the election of the first black mayor and a high share of women MEPs. The effect of such results has been to significantly improve Slovenia’s democratic image, and demonstrate the importance of international incentives for the promotion of democratic norms in domestic environments that lack a deep-rooted democratic tradition.


Tomaž Deželan, Associate Researcher, CITSEE Project, is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, and a researcher at the Centre for Political Science Research at the same faculty.

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