‘Perceived Co-Ethnics’ and Kin-State Citizenship in Southeastern Europe

Dejan Stjepanović
perceived co-ethnics

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.

Oliver Dulić, a prominent Serbia born politician and one time speaker of the Serbian parliament and later a minister in Serbian government caused some bafflement in Croatian and Serbian media by his ethnonational identification and the fact that he possesses several passports. Upon his appointment to the position of parliamentary speaker, Croatian media reported that the first ever ethnic Croat has been given that position. In a subsequent interview for the same media outlet he denied ever identifying as a Croat but rather that he is a Yugoslav. After the change of government in Serbia in 2012, Mr Dulić came under investigation for fraud and the Serbian media reported he was found in possession of a Croatian passport (apart from the Serbian passports he held).

Sociologists and anthropologists inform us that individual ethnic or national identifications are malleable, changeable, overlapping and contextual. Mr Dulić could have at the time when he acquired Croatian citizenship declared his nationality to be Croat and rediscovered himself as a Yugoslav later on. However, Mr Dulić needn’t have declared his ethnicity to be Croat, due to the kind of citizenship policies in place (in the 1990s) when he applied for the Croatian citizenship. He could have still publically declared his ethnicity as Yugoslav. At the same time, he could have provided some proof of, what Croatian authorities at the time considered, to be constituting Croat identity, such as a baptism record, in this case most likely issued by the Catholic Church, which would then help him obtain Croatian citizenship.

One way of looking at this case is that is constitutes a legal loophole or an administrative glitch, especially since the constructed and subjective category of ethnicity is used for acquiring citizenship. However, governments of states can intentionally include vague criteria of acquisition or target a particular ethnic group(s) and bestow citizenship upon them. Thus, this paper deals, not with individual cases but shifts the focus from the individual to politicised ethnonational groups. The issue this paper tries to elucidate can be best described by a hypothetical situation. Imagine a group of citizens who, just like Mr Dulić, identify as Yugoslavs and reside in Serbia. They have their elected political representatives and organisations representing the group’s interests. Imagine there is an external country X that claims all Yugoslavs are X-ians based on its own perception of that population. Imagine country X’s government feels a need, for whatever reason, to defend the interest of all X-ians abroad which according to its view include all the self-declared Yugoslavs and offers them the chance to become citizens of the country X . This is precisely the issue this paper deals with in theoretical terms, but it is firmly based in the context of Southeastern Europe.

Kin-states and external citizenship

Governments of many nation-states in Europe and particularly in Southeastern Europe have often argued they are responsible for the fate of their ethnic kin residing in the neighbouring countries. To those kin, in particular, that remained on the other side of the border once current state boundaries that were (according to nationalists of various colours– unjustly) drawn. Thus, external citizenship to the kin minorities was seen as a potential remedy for severed links with the national kin-state, the state that usually bears the name of that national group. European history is rife with cases where kin-states have applied such policies. Tensions in interstate relations were frequently the outcomes of extension of citizenship to the ethnic kin. One of the historically recent cases is that of Hungary’s government decision to offer Hungarian minorities dual citizenship in 2010. Some characterised Slovakia’s response to Hungary’s move as tit for tat.

These issues have been dealt with by scholars of various disciplines including political science, sociology and law. Rogers Brubaker addresses the challenge of dealing with the relations between national minorities, kin-states and host states (those in which they reside) by proposing the so-called traidic nexus framework,[1] which he finds particularly relevant to the post-1989 states in Europe. He argues that there is a triad linking national minorities, the nationalising states (those in which a state ‘belongs’ to the dominant ethnic group), and the external national ‘homelands’ to which they belong, or can be construed as belonging to, by ethnocultural affinity.  Brubaker understands the elements of the triad as fields rather than a socio-political reality. Fields are primarily relational and can be inhabited by various actors. What has not been sufficiently explained in the model is to look at the unidirectional relations between the fields. For example, when a state and its government percieve a group outside its border to belong to its majorty ethnicity, while such group has a distinct name and political project. This would be the abovementioned imaginary X-ian relation with Yugoslavs where the X-ian government considers all Yugoslavs to be X-ian while they claim they are Yugoslavs only. Thus, relation between the field filled by national homeland elements and that of a national minority would be unidirectional, since the homeland considers its own national project to be congruent with that of what I suggest calling ‘perceived co-ethnics’, the Yugoslavs in this analogy. This problem is especially pertinent in the case where the perception of co-ethnicity is coupled by an offer of external citizenship to the minority group in question.

Perceived co-ethnics

The paper argues that this is an interstitial category that further complicates the triadic nexus between national minorities, nationalising states and kin-states. In my terms, ‘perceived co-ethnics’ are defined as people who are recognised by the citizenship (or ethnizenship) conferring state as belonging to its main ethnic group although they themselves not only do not embrace that definition but have a distinct national project of their own. In other words, this imagined political community is seeking recognition in its own right under a different name and with different claims from that of the self-fashioned kin-state. However, the self-fashioned kin-state offers citizenship to them.

To illustrate this, the paper mentions a number of historic and contemporary cases in Europe. Goranis are an interesting case of a national minority in which several governments and nationalist elites claim that they constitute a part of the external nation. For example, a Gorani born in Kosovo can easily acquire a number of passports of neighbouring states. Countries such as Bulgaria or the Republic of Macedonia recognise Goranis as a Bulgarian or Macedonian minority in Kosovo. Goranis, however, have a distinct national project, have elected representatives and are recognised as a distinct national community in their country of residence.  There are other cases the paper mentions including Pomaks, Gagauz and Dacoromanians but also some fuzzy cases which show that the categories suggested are not clear cut, but contested and in flux. The paper further shows that despite the prominence of the perceived co-ethnicity issue in Southeastern Europe, likely because of the nature and relative historic propinquity of nation-building processes, the issue is not region-specific. The paper brings up the case of Silesians in Poland who were subject to East and West German state’s external ethnic citizenship policies, in other words, both Germanys would accord citizenship to ethnic Silesians based on the perceived co-ethnicity. 

Aromanians and Bunjevci

Although the paper mentions numerous examples, the most detailed comparison uses the case of ethnic Aromanians (Vlachs) in Albania and Greece’s external citizenship policies and the ethnic Bunjevci in Serbia’s region of Vojvodina and Croatia’s external citizenship policies. The relevant time frame is roughly the last two decades. The literature review is substantiated by fieldwork and interviews with local politicians in the cities of Korçë (Albania) and Subotica (Serbia). The individual case studies look at similar thematic issues such as self-identification/external identification of groups, internal political divisions census data and identification by the home countries and the role of the external kin-state.

An interesting observation from the Aromanian (Vlach) case is that Greek authorities do not ask Aromanian Vlachs to declare themselves as Greeks or to speak Greek in order to claim citizenship, thus lowering the threshold for the acquisition of citizenship and expanding the numbers of potential applicants. Rather, the Greek state uses the so-called Vlachometro/Βλαχόμετρο, the ‘Vlachmeter,’ that includes either testing one’s Aromanian language skills or showing a proof of Aromanian identity issued by one of the Aromanian associations in Albania.

The cases show useful variation in which the Greek-Aromanian case moves from restrictive to extremely expansive external citizenship policies affecting perceived co-ethnics.  The Croatian-Bunjevac case has a diametrically opposite trajectory. The changes could be partly explained by instrumental uses of external citizenship serving foreign policy prerogatives of self-proclaimed kin-states. Further substantiating the former argument, in the Greek-Aromanian case, declaring Aromanian (Vlach) ethnicity and proving knowledge of the Aromanian language is sufficient for the acquisition of Greek citizenship. In the Croatian-Bunjevac case the same was true in the 1990s but the declaration of Bunjevac ethnicity has been able to cause rejection of the citizenship application since the mid-2000s.

Similar for both cases is the fact that despite distinct national project and claims for recognition of Aromanian and Bunjevac political identities in their host-states, Albania and Serbia respectively, everyday practices show that in both cases, Greek and Croatian citizenship policies are welcomed by the affected populations. In other words, many Aromanians and Bunjevci acquire citizenships of Greece and Croatia in order to enjoy the benefits these offer(ed) such as visa-free travel and employment in EU countries.


Apart from bringing the perceived co-ethnics issue into the focus, the paper elucidates citizenship policies affecting groups that challenge the exact fit between ethnicity and nation; showing how national governments through particular citizenship policies and categorisation practices engage in construction of groups. The paper shows that the triadic nexus framework which has had a strong influence on citizenship and minorities scholarship could be revised in some aspects, include and better explain unidirectional relations between the elements of the triadic nexus that might go beyond the cases of perceived co-ethnics.

[1] Rogers Brubaker. Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge University Press, 1996.