New Diaspora Politics in Serbia and Croatia

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Which direction? Diaspora politics in Serbia and Croatia

States are expected to be responsible for the well-being of the citizens on a variety of levels, even when they are outside the borders of the state e.g. if they have problems when visiting another country. Though this is often far from straightforward (depending, for instance on the nature of the relations between the states involved) the issue of state responsibility becomes more problematic in the case of those in diaspora, who may not legally be citizens of the state in question, but are still thought in some sense to belong to it, usually by virtue of their place of birth, religious affiliation or ethnicity. Whilst in theory there might seem nothing wrong with a state seeking to fulfil what it regards as its obligations, the practice of doing so is usually more problematic, as can be seen from Serbia’s recent dispute with Montenegro around its “strategy” towards ethnic Serbs in general (and more importantly, “in the region”) and Croatia's adoption of its own new Strategy on Diaspora that followed shortly thereafter and on 21 October 2011 the law on Croats outside Croatia.

On 21 January the Serbian government announced its intention to “set as a target the granting of constituent nation status to Serbs in Montenegro” which meant that they would have the same status as ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Though this proposal proved popular with representatives from Serb organizations in the region, Montenegro protested against this provision, arguing that it constituted interference in their internal affairs. i.e. that Serbia was trying to define the citizenship rights of a group of people who were not its legal citizens (and could not be, given Montenegro does not recognise dual citizenship (see blog on dual citizenship in Montenegro).

The Serbian's government's response was to amend the provisions on 11 March, a move that appeared to heal relations between the two states. On 16 March Serbian President Boris Tadic and Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic opened a Serbian consulate in the coastal town of Herceg Novi. When asked about the recent disagreement, the Serbian president said that although each ethnic community should be enabled to exercise its rights to the highest degree, the state's sovereignty and integrity must never be in question. However, he went on to add that the Serbian government's notion of diaspora does not include those ethnic Serbs living in the Western Balkans, but instead those Serbs living in countries such as Germany, Austria, and the US. This distinction is part of the 2009 Law on Diaspora and Serbs in the Region, Article 2 of which distinguishes between citizens of the Republic of Serbia who live abroad and members of the Serb people, both from the republic of Serbia and from the region, who emigrated, as well as their descendants.

But despite Serbia's removal of the provision, this issue is not resolved. Montenegrin Prime Minister Igor Lukšić subsequently complained in parliament that Serbia's provision still contained parts that referred to how its diaspora strategy would be implemented, and that there would therefore need to be further discussion of the matter between the two states.

The issue of defining the rights of co-ethnics residing abroad has also been under discussion in Croatia. On 21 October 2011 the Croatian parliament adopted the Law on Relations between the Republic of Croatia and Croats outside the Republic of Croatia. The law was based on the government’s strategy adopted in May 2011 [see additional documents]. The law distinguishes between 3 different groups of Croats abroad (Croat minorities in other states, Croats in BiH, and Croat emigrants), and identifies correspondingly different goals and duties for the state towards them. As regards relations between the former Yugoslav states, the law refers to the Croat minority in Slovenia without any mention of diaspora whereas in the cases of Italy and Austria there are references to both Croat (autochthonous) minorities and more recent migrants or diaspora (Article 20). Significantly, Slovenia is one of the few countries in the region that makes no legal provision for the Croat minority.  

Further, the law introduced the new legal status of “Croat without Croatian citizenship”.  This provision is intended for those Croats who had to forfeit their Croatian citizenship in the countries which do not recognize dual citizenship. However, this status may be also granted to a Croat’s spouse and even to so-called “friends of Croatian people” who are not ethnic Croats but have demonstrated their respect for Croatian identity and who have promoted Croatia worldwide (the latter arguably stretches the notion of ‘diaspora’). This category of people, despite not being citizens of Croatia, according to the law, will not be considered as “foreigners in the areas of primary and secondary education, employment, procurement and scholarships, health insurance and other, to be regulated by separate laws” (Article 41).

Croats outside the Republic of Croatia are entitled to the “Croatia Card” which allows privileged access to services and travel in Croatia (Article 43). The law fails to acknowledge Croatia's constitutional responsibility to provide support and protection for all of its citizens abroad regardless of their ethnicity. It makes no mention of the thousands of Croatian Serbs who left Croatia as refugees that still are or used to be legal citizens of Croatia. Furthermore, not all Croatian citizens are ethnic Croats; there are also some former Croatian citizens who had to forfeit their Croatian citizenship in countries which do not recognize dual nationality, but are not ethnic Croats.

This omission can be seen as symptomatic of a new politics of post-territorial ‘reassembling’ of the nation, where the latter is understood primarily as the ethnic nation. Article 4 of Serbia's 2009 Law on Diaspora has a similar priority: as well as protecting the rights of members of the diaspora, its goals are the “protection and fostering of the Serbian language and the Cyrillic alphabet, as well as Serbian cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious identity”. 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 residence within a given geographical space is no longer necessary when deciding who 'belongs' to a community. Given the increasing mobility of people in the region (see blog on asylum seekers/visa liberalisation), this is a trend that seems likely to increase.


Additional links:

Croatian strategy

Croatian law adopted on 21 October 2011


* Photo by Alf Thomas