Citizenship and education policies in post-Yugoslav States

Nataša Pantić
School education and citizenship

All you need to know about the ways in which a polity imagines and defines its members could be found in its education” (Hemon, 2012).

The political socialisation of citizens has always been one of the functions of education in any society. For example, the 1812 Spanish constitution obliged public schools to teach children to read, write, and count, as well as the Catholic Catechism and civil obligations (Art. 366).

Civic education is one way of promoting the desired relations between the state and its citizens. A battle for hearts and minds involves other, more (or less) sophisticated arrangements for knowledge and experiences made available (or not) to students. For example, earlier this year the Front National presidential candidate complained that Henri IV and Napoleon had been replaced by the history of Mali in French schools. Moreover, the ways in which a state shapes its members through education operate beyond curriculum and schooling. One of the central questions is how authority over educational institutions is allocated.

In this essay I summarise the findings of a study that looked into the interaction between citizenship and education policies in six post-Yugoslav countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia). The study illustrated how the ethnocentric, multicultural and civic conceptions of citizenship operate in 1) education system structures, 2) use of languages in schools, and 3) overt or hidden curricula.

Citizenship and education system structures

Some of the ways in which citizenship regimes operate in education relate to the countries’ definitions of minorities (e.g. as ‘nationalities’, ‘communities’ and (constitutive) ‘peoples’), and the arrangements for their rights in education. While all countries use education for ethnocentric nation-building projects, the loci of ethnic engineering vary from the national level (in Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia) to varying lower level education authorities (in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia).

In the states with one dominant constitutive majority, the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic interests of the ‘state-bearing’ group are embedded in the design of policies and institutions. In their constitutions Croatia and Serbia define themselves as countries of the Croat and Serb majority respectively, and of ‘national minorities’. In these countries the national minorities are granted certain group rights (linguistic and cultural) within one centrally governed system of education. While Montenegro’s civic constitution does not define the country’s majority, it does grant all ‘members of minorities’ a right to public education in their language with one central curriculum sensitive to minority cultures and their histories (Art. 79).

These arrangements allow for high levels of control of educationally ‘valid’ knowledge by the education authorities at the national level, most obviously through the national curricula. Thus, young citizens learn almost exclusively about the majority group’s narrative, history, culture and religion, while minorities usually seek to secure their group’s linguistic and cultural rights in education, with varying levels of success depending on the group’s integrity, stability, political clout, and relations with kin states.

In Gutmann’s (1987) classification these states are examples of family states which seek to create a level of unity and like-mindedness among their citizens (that can be expected only in families, and perhaps not even there).

In contrast, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia are examples of consociationally exercised rights to education. In Bosnia and Herzegovina special arrangements are made for linguistically and culturally sensitive education of the three ‘constitutive peoples’, who are also de facto minorities in parts of the country. In Kosovo, members of the Serb ‘community’ are educated in a parallel system managed by the Serbian Ministry of Education. In Macedonia the Albanian ‘community’ exercises the right to education in a separate system of schools and classes in the Albanian language.

In the consociational systems significant powers in education have been transferred to the lower levels of education authorities such as entities and cantons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and municipalities in Macedonia and Kosovo, largely as a result of international agreements. Sadly, in these post-conflict contexts, allowing groups to practice and protect their cultural identity and language by decentralising authorities over education, has often meant greater power for local nationalists and sometimes segregation.

In Gutman’s terms these states represent examples of the states of families, which place authority in the hands of parents allowing them to choose to educate their children in a way consistent with their familial heritage. However, an important way in which Gutman’s state of families limits parental supremacy by requiring schools to teach mutual respect is often neglected in the implementation of multicultural education policies in post-Yugoslav countries. Writers such as Dubravka Ugrešić have examined how the break-up of Yugoslavia also quickly overthrew (in ‘a culture of lies’) the more worthy attempts to construct multicultural communities.

Citizenship and language policies in education

The countries provided a number of language policy options ranging from full instruction in a minority’s language, to minority language and culture-related classes. Most of the countries  adopted the principles of language recognition (i.e. designating certain languages as ‘official’ and then according a series of rights to speakers of those languages, including the use of languages by public schools) as opposed to the norm-and-accommodation approaches (i.e. enabling communication between public institutions and citizens with limited proficiency in the language in public use, so that they can access the rights to which they are entitled) (Kymlicka and Patten 2003).

Montenegro is an interesting case in this regard, with the recognition principle built into the Constitution (which stipulates the official use of Serbian, Bosnian, Albanian, and Croatian along with Montenegrin), yet with the norm-and-accommodation principle in the implementation of linguistic rights. In practice, education in one’s own language is provided only for the Albanian minority for whom communication would not be possible in Montenegrin due to the degree of linguistic difference, while this is not the case for the other official languages commonly referred to as ‘the mother tongue’. Recently, heated debates over the name of this common language produced a composite name for the school subject called Montenegrin-Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian Language and Literature.

The choices of some ‘linguistic minorities’ clearly link to post-conflict environments. For example, in the area of Vukovar in Croatia – where the Serb minority opted for education in their own language – Croat and Serb students were separated in different schools or shifts. In Macedonia, the right of any community constituting 20% or more of the population of a municipality to education in their mother tongue is used primarily by ethnic Albanians. In Kosovo, the right of minorities to be educated in their own languages is implemented for Turkish and Bosnian communities, while Serbs follow curricula from Serbia. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the education that accommodates linguistic rights is in actual fact based on ethnic grounds.

The option of education in the first language is usually provided, depending on a threshold number of students, favouring territoriality over the universal principle, and group over individual rights. All countries (except Croatia) have established a requirement for a minimum number of students for establishing specific classes or schools for a minority. For example, in Serbia education in a minority language is granted for a minimum of 15 students or upon a request and Minister’s approval for fewer than 15 pupils.

Many of the claims to group rights are politically motivated, and may be less about the practicality of language use and communication, and more about the symbolic nature of language as a key to one’s history and identity. On one hand classes and schools separate pupils linguistically even where there is an almost complete mutual understanding, as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia. On the other hand, there is little evidence of a genuine intention to ensure bilingual education where language does represent a real barrier for inter-community communication, as in Kosovo and Macedonia.

In summary, although the language policies in the six states are broadly consistent with the multicultural conception of citizenship granting cultural and linguistic group rights in education, the promotion of the mutual respect principle and interethnic contact are limited, as are individual choices for the language of instruction by both majorities and minorities. The problem with homogenising groups for policy purposes – even where there is a degree of interaction between the groups – is that interactions take place between individuals who classify each other exclusively in terms of belonging to specific ethnic or cultural communities.

Citizenship and (hidden) curriculum

The civic conceptions of citizenship could only be found in the introduction of civic education as curricular units in line with the countries’ professed aims of producing citizens who were responsible, critical, equal, and respectful of others. At the same time, ethnocentric conceptions of citizenship can be discerned in other subject curricula and textbooks, and especially in the hidden curricula.

Civic education sometimes has the status of a ‘compulsory elective’ on par with subjects like religious education or the history of religions, e.g. in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia. In some cases students and parents are ‘helped’ to make choices by timetable arrangements. For example, in the Sarajevo Canton optional religious classes are organised in between other compulsory classes. In Serbia an unusual binary opposition between civic and religious education has established itself in the national curriculum over the last decade. While it is obligatory to attend one of these two curricular units that are arranged at the same time, parents have no option of enrolling their children in both.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina 70% of curricula are shared; 30% is reserved for the ‘national group of subjects’ including mother tongue and literature, geography, history, and religious instruction. In these subjects students learn primarily with and about their ethnic group. The most notorious examples of segregated schooling is that of Bosniak and Croat children in ‘two schools under one roof’ in which teachers and students of the two groups are physically separated into ‘linguistically’ arranged classes. Students and teachers use different entrances and different staff rooms and even have different break times. Recently, the first court decision ruled that the segregation in ‘two schools under one roof’ is a violation of the Law against discrimination in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In summary, the transformations of education for citizenship in post-Yugoslav states could be described as abandonment of the civic elements of education in favour of ethnocentric concerns, on the pretext of ensuring multicultural education of young citizens. In the post-war Balkan geographies the claims of collective linguistic and cultural rights potentially work at cross-purposes against universal human rights, civic conceptions of citizenships, and non-discrimination. It remains to be seen what effects the education policies will have on the next generation of citizens in the region.

Is there a way out of this conundrum?

Mechanisms for protection of individual rights, anti-discrimination and mutual respect principles, and for sanctioning disrespect of these principles at national and local levels, are yet to be developed. Positive developments have been noted with regard to the inclusion and desegregation of Roma in education, often supporting anti-discriminatory practices rather than promoting recognition of cultural and linguistic rights. Sometimes measures targeting Roma students have contributed to building inclusive educational practices more generally, for example through supporting anti-discriminatory school cultures.

Post-Yugoslav societies, like others, are stratified by different interrelated layers of diversity, e.g. living conditions in urban and rural environments, social and family cultures, educational abilities, religious and secular views, gender, and so on. Which particular dimensions of diversity come to the forefront of policy agendas is guided by the political concerns of the moment. In the region, education debates in the post-war period have been dominated by the issues of linguistic and cultural diversity and rights. However, many of the concerns about the quality of education and teachers, pupils’ functional knowledge and employability, teaching and learning, are shared by all parents. The increasing presence of these substantive issues in education debates and media might shift the foci of public pressure and the priorities of education authorities.

Nataša Pantić is a University of Edinburgh Chancellor's Fellow and a CITSEE Research Collaborator. 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.



Gutmann, A., 1987. Democratic Education. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Hemon, A., 2012. National subjects. Guernica magazine. January, 2012.

Kymlicka, W. and Patten, A., 2003. Introduction: Language Rights and Political Theory. In W. Kymlicka and A. Patten, eds. Language Rights and Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.