The Risks and Benefits of Ethnic Citizenship by Florian Bieber

Kin-state paternalism

Millions of people in Southeastern Europe are citizens of more than one state. Many acquired this status when they were gastarbajteri [guestworkers]in Germany, Austria and elsewhere in Western Europe; others received a second passport as they fled the wars that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia. For some people, dual citizenship seems due to a quirk of fate: for example, their father may have been born in a different Yugoslav republic than they and held that republican citizenship when Yugoslavia was still a single country and when republican citizenship had no practical significance. Due to some long abandoned vestiges of patriarchal rules, today they have the right to a second citizenship of a republic they never lived in. Among the many ‘multi-citizens’ of Southeastern Europe there are probably a million who have received passports from countries they have never lived in. Hundreds of thousands of citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina hold Croatian citizenship as a result of their ethnic Croat identity. Over 50,000 Macedonians also became citizens of Bulgaria after declaring themselves to be ethnically Bulgarian. Recently, Serbs from Bosnia (and elsewhere) have been able to become Serbian citizens by declaring their loyalty to Serbia—most prominently, President of the Serb Republic, one of the two Bosnian entities, and Milorad Dodik, who publicly submitted his request for citizenship to the Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić in 2007. Nearly a million Moldovan citizens have applied for Romanian passports and over 100,000 have been granted EU citizenship, on the grounds that they are descendents of former Romanian citizens who lost their Romanian citizenship when Bessarabia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944.

Collecting passports

Of course, this is not an anomaly when looked at in European terms: many old EU members (such as Germany, Italy and Spain) have been generously granting passports to their co-nationals around the world, often for decades.  Despite following an existing European pattern, the citizenship policies of these Southeastern European countries have stirred controversy. Romania's generous policy towards Moldovans has been a cause for concern in Western Europe, with some viewing the policy as a backdoor for poor Moldovans to gain entry into the EU. Hungary's recent decision to grant citizenship to Hungarians abroad led to a low-point in Hungarian-Slovak relations in 2010. When, during the Croatian parliamentary elections, the campaign posters of Croatian politicians appeared across Bosnia and Herzegovina, they seemed to compound the fragility of the country. They also underlined the challenges faced by Bosniaks who lack a kin state to give them a second passport. Bulgaria's generosity to Macedonians could be seen as undermining Macedonia's already fragile sovereignty. Many Albanians consider Greece's policy of generously giving passports to Orthodox Albanians (or Greeks, depending whom you ask) as a way of securing influence. 

Beyond its negative impact on statehood and inter-ethnic relations, such citizenship policies have also had a damaging effect on domestic policies. In Croatia, the Diaspora seats reserved in parliament have notoriously helped to increase the number of seats for the Croat Democratic Community (HDZ) in parliament. The special electoral unit for the Diaspora vote, predominately from Bosnia and Herzegovina, was part of the toolkit of election manipulation used by the HDZ during the 1990s to extend its rule.  In the early Macedonian parliamentary elections in June 2011, for the first time three seats were allocated to the diaspora (one each for Europe and Africa, the Americas and Australia and Asia). Unsurprisingly, these seats were easily won by the governing nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party with between 57.32% and 92.72% of the vote, bolstering the governing majority.

The goal of ethnic citizenship has often been a strategy of both nationalist parties and nation-states. The former use it to shore up their support; the latter to assert the dominance of the titular nation and support its kin-state policies towards its neighbours.

Nationalist policies—individual pragmatism

It would thus seem easy to dismiss ethnic citizenship policies as being detrimental for democratic consolidation and as inimical to a liberal approach towards citizenship. However, from the perspective of those citizens who receive an additional passport, it can be a different matter. The attempt to gain a second (or third) citizenship often has practical rather than ideological motivations. When Dodik acquired Serbian citizenship, and Ljubčo Georgievski, a former Macedonian Prime Minister, acquired Bulgarian citizenship, they were sending a clear political message. But in practice, most citizens have more mundane motivations. Having a second passport is a rational decision: first, it opens new doors, from visa-free travel to employment in the EU; second, it is an insurance policy. In a region where states have recently come and gone, citizenship of just one country fails to provide the sense of predictability and certainty many people hope for. A second passport is a safety net and possibly an exit ticket in case of renewed conflict. As a consequence, multiple citizenships, including those based on ethnic criteria, may help reduce tensions. Individual pragmatism can thus appropriate and undermine the state’s nationalist policies.

Who are the people?

However, ethnic citizenship raises a larger question of a country: who are its people? A political system is based on a social contract between its citizens on how they seek to be governed. Although granting citizenship to those who neither live, have lived or might never plan to live in the country whose citizenship they possess makes these persons part of the “people”, these citizens are not subject to the general rules and laws (except in peripheral matters), do not pay taxes and do not suffer the consequence of bad policies. As a result, diasporas can “afford” greater ethnonationalism as they do not have to suffer the consequences of ethnonationalist policies. Additionally, such rules usually de jure or de facto favour the dominant and titular nation over minorities and reaffirm the state as a national state, or the state belonging only to the dominant national group. Beyond the ethnonational dimension of citizenship, such policies also “de-territorialise” citizenship. What does it mean, for example, for Croatia that somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of its citizens permanently live outside of its borders?

There are two ways of looking at this trend. One approach is to see this as an erosion of democracy. A functioning democracy needs to circumscribe the “people” to ensure that the government is representative of this community. All countries have their share of citizens who live abroad, but this share is usually fairly small and does not undermine the link between government and citizenry. If this share reaches double digits, the community which forms the polity is increasingly distorted. Once this trend reaches its logical conclusion, government will be determined not by those who are governed, but by those governed by a different authority. As a consequence, large scale ethnic citizenship can undermine democracy in terms of electoral politics and the basis of citizenship for the political community.

The Benefits of Multiple Citizenship

An alternative view holds that citizenship needs to be viewed as a status which is detached from the community that shapes a country. Instead, citizenship needs to reflect the multiple overlapping sources of loyalty and identity people experience. These sources might include the person’s place of residence, the identity of their parents, and their past countries of residence. The vision of individuals holding only one citizenship—embodied by the 1963 Council of Europe Convention on the Reduction of Cases of Multiple Nationality and on Military Obligations in Cases of Multiple Nationality—is the reflection of an outdated nation-state centered view of citizenship. The monopolistic claim of a country over its citizens— not allowing dual citizenship —denies the fact that many individuals have different sources of identity which is expressed in multiple citizenships. Multiple citizenships can be seen as empowering individuals over states and reflect more adequately the reality of a more mobile population with different identities. Thus, the classical understanding of a clearly circumscribed and closed political community no longer reflects today’s reality.

Even if we accept this logic, this does not mean ethnically based citizenship is necessarily desirable. This is an argument for multiple citizenships, broadly defined, with ethnically based citizenship being merely one sub-category. While not the only form of identity, ethnicity can be an important form of identity and citizenship a reflection thereof. Of course, as noted earlier, many of those who have acquired ethnically based citizenship might not have had the same motivations as the state which granted citizenship to them. The difference between the two motivations is crucial: if ethnicity is not a meaningful bond for individuals, and the passport granted on grounds of ethnicity is used for pragmatic purposes, the passport is unlikely to generate new sources of loyalty. If on the other hand, the acquisition of citizenship is based on one’s ethnic identity, then the passport is a reflection of this identity, not a generator thereof. In scholarly debates on ethnic identity, one school of thought argues that institutions, such as citizenship, generate and reaffirm ethnic identity. However, the experience in Bosnia, for example, provides little evidence in the case of ethnic citizenship. While most Croats hold Croatian citizenship, in the past few Serbs held Serbian passports. Still, surveys over the past 15 years continuously suggest that identification with the Bosnian state remains lower among Serbs than Croats in Bosnia. Elsewhere in the region, dual citizenship appears not to have been the cause of eroding minority trust or loyalty towards their state of residence.

Citizenship granted on grounds of ethnic belonging has doubtless been the source of tensions in Southeastern Europe, and has been instrumentalised by nationalist parties to retain power. At the same time, it can also be viewed as one dimension of a broader trend of citizens trying to emancipate themselves from reliance on one state and a monistic identity. The more individual the implications of such citizenships, and the less they impact the different states affected, the more likely it is that the more beneficial aspects of multiple citizenship will predominate.


Florian Bieber is a professor of Southeast European Studies at the Karl-Franzens-University Graz, Austria.