Rolling back history: The Romanian policy of restoration of citizenship to former citizens

Costica Dumbrava
Romanian citizenship

“It is not citizen Dumitrescu from [the Moldovan city of] Cahul who has decided to lose his [Romanian] nationality, it’s Stalin who has decided for him.”

Romanian president, Traian Basescu

After the fall of the communist regime, Romania adopted legal provisions regarding the facilitated re-acquisition of citizenship by former citizens and their descendants. According to the 1991 citizenship law, former citizens who “have had their citizenship withdrawn against their will or for other reasons not imputably to them” could reacquire Romanian citizenship without having to renounce other citizenship(s) or take up residence in the country. These provisions aimed at restoring Romanian citizenship particularly to former citizens and their descendants who inhabited the territories lost by Romania in 1940, namely Bessarabia, now the Republic of Moldova, Northern Bukovina and Southern Bessarabia, now part of Ukraine. This policy has attracted important criticism from various domestic and external stakeholders, including possible beneficiaries, governments of neighbouring countries and European politicians. Overtly passionate arguments and a search for sensationalism seem to dominate the debates about the restoration of Romanian citizenship, thus obscuring the complex purposes and implications of the policy. In this short piece, I point out various justifications of this policy and underline several of its major implications.

Undoing historical injustice

The official justification for facilitated access to citizenship for persons who have lost Romanian citizenship “against their will or for other reasons not imputably to them” is mainly framed in the language of justice. The post-communist state assumed the duty to restore Romanian citizenship, albeit upon individual request, to all those who had been unjustly deprived of citizenship status. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Romania condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but it has not advanced territorial claims with regard to the provinces lost during the war. Instead of contesting borders, Romania adopted provisions for preferential re-acquisition of citizenship by former citizens and their descendants, most of whom continued to live in its former territories.

According to one interpretation, people living in the former territories never really lost Romanian citizenship. The annexation of Bessarabia, Southern Bessarabia and Northern Bucovina was a consequence of a secret agreement between Stalin and Hitler about dividing Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. Because the annexation of Bessarabia by Soviet Union in 1940 was unlawful, the argument goes, the subsequent imposition of Soviet citizenship on people living in Bessarabia was also unlawful. However, the territorial change was recognised by the Paris Peace Treaties of 1947. Romanian citizens living in the territories annexed by the Soviet Union lost their citizenship when they were granted Soviet citizenship by virtue of the fact that Romanian law at the time did not allow dual citizenship.[i]

Hidden nationalism

Romanian leaders have often argued that the citizenship law does not promote ethno-nationalist conceptions of the nation. Unlike the citizenship laws of other states in the region, such as Bulgaria, Croatia, and Hungary, the Romanian provisions regarding the restoration of citizenship do not target former citizens according to their ethnic origin. According to the 1991 citizenship law, all former citizens (and descendants) could apply to reacquire citizenship regardless of their ethnicity. This applies equally to ethnic Romanians and to Bulgarians from Cadrilater, Tatars, Jews or Germans who emigrated from Romania before or after the establishment of the communist regime. For the same reason, the restoration provisions do not apply to ethnic Romanians who have never been Romanian citizens because they lived in territories which have never belonged to Romania, such as Vlachs from Serbia or Aromanians from Albania. In 2012 ten Romanian MPs proposed a law providing for facilitated access to Romanian citizenship for all members of the Romanian Diaspora, as defined by the Law on the support granted to Romanians from everywhere (2007). The proposal was rejected because, unlike the current citizenship law, it disconnected the claim of facilitated acquisition of citizenship from the fact of a previous formal link to the state. 

Despite the careful wrapping of the citizenship policy in civic clothing, we can still trace certain ethno-nationalist considerations. Firstly, it was obvious from the beginning that, apart from delivering justice to individuals, the provisions regarding the restoration of citizenship also served the nationalistic goal of recreating the national community of the pre-communist state. Secondly, in 2003 Romania imposed a requirement about  command of the Romanian language that could be seen as an indicator of ethnic selectivity. However, this requirement was removed in 2009. Finally, more recent rephrasing of the restoration provisions denotes a nationalist conception of membership. The amendments of the citizenship law in 2009-2010 restricted the privilege of facilitated reacquisition of citizenship to former citizens by birth. Article 11 (1) of the republished Romanian citizenship law (2010) provides that the reacquisition procedure concerns “persons who obtained the Romanian citizenship at birth or through adoption and who lost it for reasons not imputable to them or who had their citizenship withdrawn against their will, as well as their descendants down to the third-degree” (emphasis added).

The new amendments relate to the constitutional principle according to which Romanian citizenship acquired through birth cannot be lost involuntarily. Applying this principle to the issue of reacquisition generated a version of retrospective ius sanguinis, in which (only) descendants of former citizens by birth are entitled to require citizenship. The justification based on the duty to repair unjust deprivation is maintained, but the new interpretation discriminates between “genuine” (former) citizens – that is citizens through birth – and other (former) citizens. For example, descendants of naturalised Romanian citizens who were born after their parents lost Romanian citizenship “for reasons not imputable to them or who had their citizenship withdrawn against their will” do not qualify for re-acquisition after 2009, although they could qualify for it between 1991 and 2009. The new emphasis on birthright citizenship suggests a nationalist conception of membership that celebrates inherited and organic connections between individuals and the state.

Regional quarrels

The Romanian policy of restoration of citizenship, although formulated in general terms, mainly concerns people living in neighbouring territories that previously belonged to the Romanian state. For this reason Ukraine and Moldova have accused Romania of revisionism. Ukraine has described the Romanian policy of restoration of citizenship as “a soft realisation of the idea of the ‘Greater Romania’”. The fact that Ukraine does not accept dual citizenship also means that Ukrainian citizens who take up Romanian citizenship risk losing Ukrainian citizenship. Despite recent improvements in relations between Romania and Ukraine, the “distribution” of Romanian passports to Ukrainian citizens is still seen by Ukrainian officials as “an unfriendly step”.

The relations between Romania and Moldova have been particularly tense during the successive communist governments in Moldova (2001-2009). The communists have actively promoted Moldovanism as the official public identity of Moldova in order to counteract pro-Romanian tendencies. The Moldovan citizenship law of 2000 required the Ministry of External Affairs to identify and denaturalise all persons who held dual citizenship, thus threatening pro-Romanian politicians who were believed to have acquired Romanian citizenship. Even after Moldova officially accepted dual citizenship, the rights of dual citizens were restricted by a ban on holding political office. The ban was removed only after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the practice was in breach of human rights.

Following political unrest in Moldova in spring 2009, the Romanian government decided to speed up the process of the restoration of citizenship. The communist government of Moldova retaliated by imposing visas for Romanian citizens (between April and September 2009), thus violating an agreement with the EU concerning a visa-free regime for EU citizens. Romanian-Moldovan relations improved after the resolution of the Moldovan political crises. As part of the strategy to improve the process of restoration of citizenship, Romania has extended its network of consulates in Moldova. In 2009 the two countries signed the Small Border Trafficking Agreement and, in 2010, a long overdue border treaty.

Citizenship issues also play a role in the relations between Romania and Hungary. In this case, however, it is usually Romania who reacts to Hungary’s policies. In 2001, for example, Hungary adopted a law providing a special status and various benefits to Hungarian ethnics outside of Hungary. After vehement criticism from Romania and Slovakia, and the intervention of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, the law was amended in 2003. More recently, in 2010, Hungary amended its citizenship law in order to permit the acquisition of citizenship by persons of Hungarian ancestry who reside outside of Hungary. The law has generated strong reactions from countries with significant Hungarian minorities, such as Slovakia and Ukraine. Surprisingly, the initiative did not generate outcry in Romania. This unusual attitude may be explained by the key role that the main Hungarian party in Romania, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), played in the Romanian Parliament.

EU immigration concerns

During the preparations for the accession of Romania to the European Union, the government raised additional obstacles to the process of restoration of citizenship. After the accession of Romania to the EU in 2007, a series of legal and administrative measures have reignited the policy. In this context, alarmist news about one million  Moldovan migrants entering the EU using Romanian passports have become widespread in the Western press.

European criticism has been nurtured by a series of scandals related to illegal practices and corruption in the process of reacquisition of citizenship. In 2012 a large-scale investigation was carried out triggered by allegations of fraudulent acquisition of Romanian citizenship, which led to the conviction of several officials from the National Citizenship Authority, the Ministry of Justice and the Bucharest City Hall. The investigations unveiled a complex illegal network of intermediaries who facilitated the acquisition of citizenship or residence visas. It was discovered, for example, that a single flat owner in Bucharest had registered, against a fee, a number of 3,600 tenants, all from the Republic of Moldova.

Nevertheless, worries about the large number of people who re-acquire Romanian citizenship seem exaggerated. According to a study sponsored by the Open Society Institute, from 1991-2011 only 226,507 persons officially applied to acquire Romanian citizenship through the facilitated procedure.[ii] It can be argued that Romanian citizenship policies make a perfect pretext for delaying the full integration of Romania into the EU. According to the French EU affairs minister, Pierre Lellouche, “the distribution of Romanian passports outside their border” is one of the problems that blocks the accession of Romania to the Schengen area.” Such stances contrast sharply with relaxed attitudes towards other European cases of facilitated acquisition of citizenship. For example, it is estimated that Italy has granted citizenship to more one million individuals abroad in only twelve years (1998-2010). Is it because Italian descendants are more likely to be “civilized” people and not “serial offenders” and members of criminal gangs from Moldova?

Domestic politics

Democratic politics ideally presupposes a territorial community where members make the laws and are bound by the laws. In this view, initiatives to grant citizenship to people who are not residents of the country, hence not fully subject to its laws, seem problematic.

In Romania non-resident citizens enjoy voting rights in national elections and national referenda. In recent years, the voting rights of non-resident citizens has been a controversial issue. Although most of the political parties support the policy of restoration of citizenship, it is probable that the actual president, Traian Basescu, has benefited the most from the policy. The increased number of re-acquisitions after 2007 was seen as a result of an electoral strategy. Basescu won the second tour of the presidential elections of 2009 by a tiny margin (71,000 votes) after gaining the overwhelming support of voters from abroad. In 2012, after a referendum on the impeachment of the president, the electoral status and the voting rights of non-resident citizens became issues of debate. The contentious issue was whether Romanian citizens who live abroad should be counted in the electoral quorum for the purpose of assessing the validity of the referendum. In the heat of the debate, several politicians argued that the voting rights of non-residents should be scrapped altogether. For example, Crin Antonescu – the leader of the National Liberal Party and the interim president during the suspension of Basescu, claimed that the right to vote should be linked more strictly to subjection to law and taxation.

Critical reactions towards external franchise and citizenship appear as expressions of disappointment with electoral results rather than principled stances. In fact, Romanian political leaders have generally endorsed the policy of restoration of citizenship. During the referendum campaign in 2012, for example, the suspended president paid a visit to Chisinau and reaffirmed his support for the restoration policy. Shortly after that, Victor Ponta – the prime minister and Basescu’s main challenger – visited the capital of Moldova and expressed his support for the same policy. According to Ponta, “the provision of the Romanian citizenship to Moldova residents is our historic duty.”

The Romanian policy of restitution of citizenship to former citizens has mixed justifications and complex implications. Invoking the moral obligation of the state to undo historical wrongs, post-communist leaders attempted to recreate the pre-war national community by restoring citizenship to people who were left outside the borders after the Second World War. This generated critical reactions from the neighbouring countries where former Romanian citizens live, particularly Ukraine and Moldova.  Although officials insisted that the policy was not driven by ethno-nationalists ideals, recent amendments that restrict the entitlement to the restoration of citizenship to former citizens through birth suggest a nationalist conception of citizenship that is defined primarily in terms of organic ties established through birth.


[i] Constantin Iordachi, 2012 “Reacquiring The Romanian Citizenship in Historical Perspective: From the Restitution of State Citizenship to the Primacy of the Citizenship Status Acquired at Birth”, In C. Iordachi (ed.) Reacquiring the Romanian Citizenship Historical, Comparative and Applied Perspectives, Bucharest: Curtea Veche, 310-95, 339.

[ii] Ibid., 361.