The Politics of Selecting by Origin in Post-Communist Southeast Europe

Marko Žilović
Street name changes

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.

On a usual working day in the village of Ivanovo in Serbia there are three cars with Bulgarian license plates parked in front of the small elementary school. This is not because a delegation from Bulgaria is visiting this village of little more than 1000 inhabitants. Importing used cars licensed in Bulgaria was a well-known scheme to circumvent restrictive Serbian regulations that protect the Zastava company, the only domestic car producer. The scheme worked best if the buyer had a Bulgarian passport. It is thus no coincidence that several cars with Bulgarian license plates found their way into the Ivanovo, for it is one of the few places where fleeing Roman Catholic Slavs from northern Bulgaria settled in the 18th century. Today, about a fifth of Ivanovo’s population declare themselves ethnic Bulgarians, though probably only a handful of them have obtained Bulgarian passports. However, among the owners of the Bulgarian-licensed cars, and passports, is also a local math teacher who declares himself an ethnic Serb. He tells of having some ethnic Romanians in his family tree a few generations ago, but no Bulgarian connections whatsoever.

When the math teacher wanted to buy a used car he approached a local intermediary in the Bulgarian cars scheme. With the intermediary’s help, and two trips to the nearest Bulgarian city across the border, the math teacher became a Bulgarian citizen. He used his mother’s maiden name to justify this, because it ends with ‘-ev’. This is a common surname suffix in Bulgaria, but it was also a common way of deriving patronyms, that eventually became family names, of many Serb families.  Nevertheless, this was deemed sufficient proof that the math teacher was of ethnic Bulgarian origin; under the Bulgarian external selectivity regime it was enough to qualify him for facilitated naturalization. If the same math teacher could speak some Hungarian, he could have also tried obtaining Hungarian citizenship. Since late 2010 Hungary has offered facilitated naturalization for all Hungarian-speaking descendants of former citizens of the pre-1918 Kingdom of Hungary, which also incorporated present-day northern Serbia where Ivanovo is situated. However, under no circumstances could the math teacher gain facilitated access to Romanian citizenship, although it is the only neighbouring nation that he actually has some ancestral connection with.

Both individuals and states use citizenship for a variety of purposes and functions. One of the goals that states often pursue is to recognise and strengthen special ties (commonly, but not always, ethnic ties) through which certain groups are deemed connected to the state prior and independent of their legal citizenship status.1 States can tend to these ties in number of different ways, but what prompts them to use different types of external selectivity regimes? External selectivity regimes denote a specific sub-regime of broader citizenship configurations. They contain the rules specifying which groups of applicants, and under what conditions, are by virtue of their collective ties favoured by a state for naturalisation, or for comparable citizenship-acquiring procedures. ‘External’ in this concept refers not to external residence, but to the boundary between citizens and non-citizens. How and why do requirements for facilitated access to citizenship vary temporally and across countries? Given the inevitably malleable and often mixed ethnic identities that people have, how do states seek to define and recognise co-ethnics among naturalisation applicants? What prompts political elites to configure naturalisation opportunities for the selected applicants in different ways, and what makes these configurations persist and change over time?

The answers to these questions are likely to vary across different historical and geographical contexts. Nevertheless, there are also significant variations within the broader region of Southeast Europe, where the post-communist years saw a clearly discernable trend towards providing facilitated access to citizenship to co-ethnics regardless of their previous, current or future place of residence. This trend has not encompassed all the post-communist countries in the region, and even those that eventually got there, did so at different times, and through different pathways. The states emerging from the former Yugoslavia, as well as Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Hungary, all share some important contextual similarities, such as a legacy of communism, its more or less simultaneous and volatile demise, and incongruence between ethnic and state boundaries. Finally, neither of these countries has become an important destination for economic immigrants, who in the richer western countries often constituted an important constituency advocating less ethnically selective naturalisation rules. How can we conceptually capture and explain these variations in external selectivity regimes and the trajectories of these broadly comparable cases?

Conceptualising and Mapping Regional External Selectivity Regimes

To reduce the complexity of external selectivity regimes for analytical purposes, it is useful to develop a typology based on the most widespread means of facilitating naturalisation. These can be classified according to two basic criteria. First, whether the facilitated naturalisation clauses define the group eligible for the most facilitated naturalisation procedure ethnically, or whether a group is defined by its territorial origin. The former can be termed ethnic selectivity, and the latter emigrant selectivity. Emigrant selectivity regimes include anyone with a valid territorial origin, and they exclude co-ethnics without this kind of territorial origin. Ethnic selectivity regimes include everyone recognised as a co-ethnic without any need to produce proofs of territorial origin. A second criterion is whether members of the most favoured group – either emigrant or ethnic – are required to establish residence in the state in order to fall under the most favourable naturalisation procedure. Where residence is required, selectivity regimes can be thought of as welcoming. The message sent to the favoured group is: if you come and live here you will be welcomed and recognised as full citizens more easily than the “real foreigners”. Where the residence requirement is waived, selectivity regimes can be thought of as post-territorial as they use citizenship to embrace broader non-residential communities consisting of ethnic kin or of territorially-dispersed emigrants regardless of ethnicity.

Cross-tabulation of the two criteria yields the following analytical typology that could be further divided into the sub-types of each category by using auxiliary criteria:

Table 1

Using the data and reports on citizenship regimes in the countries emerging from the former Yugoslavia, plus Albania, that were collected in the first phase of the CITSEE research project, and similar sources for the other post-communist countries of Southeast Europe collected within the EUDO citizenship research project, one can discern a few basic patterns in the region. Most of the countries presently have some sort of post-territorial selectivity, though states differ in the degrees to which selectivity is ethnicised. The present cases of ethnic post-territorial external selectivity emerged in two separate temporal waves. One wave occurred in the early 1990s, and the other has been happening since 2001. Finally, Albania has remained the only ethnically highly homogenous state in the region that currently opts for a mildly welcoming ethnic selectivity regime, and not for the ethnic post-territorial type.

Table 2. (Years of the most recent regime shift are given in brackets)

Towards Explaining the Politics of Selecting by Origin

The patterns and exemptions sketched in Table 2 were influenced by several explanatory factors already discussed in the citizenship literature, such as ethnic divisions, variations in international opportunity structure, economic and logistical costs of implementing a particular selectivity regime, mass political mobilization, and left-right party competition. However, the relative causal weight of these explanatory variables has varied between (a) old nation-states prone to act as external national homelands, newly emerging nationalizing states, and ethnically divided states; and temporally between (b) the early post-communist years of ‘thickened history’2 and the later politically calmer period after 2000. In this second period, left-right party political competition becomes the main determinant of external selectivity regimes. For a range of reasons3 right-wing parties were more likely to push forward ethnic post-territorial selectivity regimes. Political elites have always shaped citizenship rules in the most immediate sense of adopting them in parliaments, but under some conditions the influence of party-driven logic on selectivity regimes has been constrained or overridden. This has been foremost the case with constraints of complex ethnic demography, and with periods of ‘thickened history’ when extraordinary political opportunities arose to swamp the more mundane institutionalised party and parliamentary politics.

Newly emerging states with high degrees of ethnic homogeneity (such as Slovenia) opted for ethnic post-territorial selectivity regimes in the early years of post-communism. This was part of the broader wave of nationalizing the public sphere happening at the time. During these rare historical opportunities to break away from the existing political units, selectivity reforms were part of an effort to establish new states as national homelands for a particular ethnicity. Similar nationalizing impulses were present in ethnically less homogenous, newly emerging states such as Macedonia or Moldova, but there the attempts to ethnicise external selectivity proved politically unfeasible due to strong internal identity divisions. Throughout the two post-communist decades the heterogeneous ethnic structure of states has been a constraining factor in the ethnicisation of external selectivity, despite the attempts of some rightist political elites. One partial exception is the case of Croatia, which had an intermediate level of ethnic heterogeneity in the early 1990s. Here the early regime of ethnic post-territorial selectivity proved durable but only after the process of substantial ethnic homogenisation resulting from the war-induced displacement of the ethnic Serb minority.

An alternative strategy sometimes available to the ethnically divided states of the region was to remove residence criteria while defining the target group on the basis of emigrants’ territorial origin, and irrespective of ethnicity. This was the route taken by Macedonia, Kosovo, and (more cautiously) by Moldova in 2003. However this alternative has been available only if citizens of divided states were not also prominent targets of other states’ facilitated naturalisation policies. If neighbours’ selectivity regimes became politically salient in targeted countries, the common countering move – seen in Bosnia, Montenegro and in Moldova before 2003 – has been for divided states to try to restrict dual citizenship to prevent their citizens from taking foreign passports in large numbers. The success of these countering moves was at best mixed, but they did make it impossible for these states to adopt anything except rather limited forms of welcoming regimes for repatriating emigrants, and in the most difficult post-conflict cases for repatriation of refugees. In Bosnia international interventions created space for retention of dual citizenship for non-resident refugees and emigrants, albeit not through naturalisation, but through transfer of citizenship ius sanguinis abroad. Similarly, international involvement in Kosovo has been safeguarding the (so far untested) non-ethnicised external selectivity criteria despite the demographic dominance of ethnic Albanians.

For the old nation-states of the region (such as Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania), the demise of communism was in many ways a dramatic transformation, but the re-affirmation of the internal ethnic hierarchy was usually not as contentious. Unlike the newly emerging states, old nation-states were not pressed to justify their independent existence, while an informal ethnic hierarchical order was more or less known even during the communist period. Thus, the early post-communist nationalising push in the old nation-states has usually not resulted in post-territorial forms of ethnic selectivity. Romania and Albania, though, were during the great political upheavals of the early post-communist years presented with relatively credible and tempting irredentist opportunities. Pulled by such historical opportunities, political elites in the two countries established post-territorial selectivity regimes early on.

In the 2000s all the nation-states of the region – with the exception of Albania –shifted in the direction of ethnic post-territorial regimes prompted by the initiatives coming from their main right-wing parties. In this period left-right party competition, and emulation of a broader international sub-current of ethnicisation of citizenship, account more consistently for the moves toward ethnic post-territorial external selectivity in Hungary, Bulgaria and Serbia. Once introduced, ethnic post-territorial regimes of selectivity have been relatively stable in the region. Only under conditions of overload caused by a rapid increase in the number of citizenship applications, have left-wing governments been both motivated and able to reinsert the residence clauses for naturalisation of co-ethnics. Only under these conditions have their arguments about the economic and logistical costs of positive ethnic selectivity been persuasive. These extraordinary circumstances – associated with the mass influx of co-ethnic refugees – reversed established or otherwise expected ethnic post-territorial regimes of selectivity in FR Yugoslavia in 1996, and in Albania in 1998. Outside of the war context, a somewhat similar situation occurred in Romania in 2001, when the prospect of visa-free travel with a Romanian passport increased the number of applications from Moldova to levels that were both politically and logistically prohibitive for Romania.

In deciding whether to seek access to a particular citizenship most people tend to be just as practically minded as the math teacher in Ivanovo. However, the broader sum of these individual decisions, as well as the sheer symbolic potential of using citizenship to uphold special ties between a state and a particular group, have important implications for wider political issues, such as ethnic politics, the fortunes of political parties, control of diaspora organisations, and sometimes even the high international politics in the region. Understanding the political dynamics that shape this policy sphere thus merits sustained research attention. In this respect the literature has already made important advances by proposing several plausible explanatory approaches, but the need for more comparative work remains, especially for comparisons including smaller and under-studied countries of the region. A promising way to proceed with this comparative turn is to conceptually disaggregate segments of overall citizenship configurations into more precise analytical blocks. This exercise in comparing 12 post-communist cases develops external selectivity regimes as one of those analytical blocks. Its findings, although in need of further testing, hold a promise of reconciling sometimes disconnected or contradictory approaches of the broader literature on citizenship politics. This requires greater attention to conceptual clarity in studying segments of citizenship, as well as careful tracing of evolving structure of political opportunities in which citizenship rules and practices are shaped and reshaped.

Marko Žilović is a PhD student of Comparative Politics at the University of Belgrade.


1 Vink, Maarten Peter and Rainer Bauböck (2011) “Citizenship Configurations. Analysing the multiple purposes of citizenship laws in 33 European states (1991-2011)”, Paper presented at the 6th ECPR General Conference, University of Island, 25-27 August 2011, p. 16.

2 Beissinger, Mark R. (2002) Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 27.

3 Waterbury, Myra A (2010) Between State and Nation: Diaspora Politics and Kin-state Nationalism in Hungary. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, p. 8.