The Politics of Return, Inequality and Citizenship in the Post-Yugoslav Space

Biljana Đorđević
Politics of return

This is an extended summary of a longer paper that was originally published in the CITSEE Working Papers Series and is available for download here.

The boundary problem – the problem of “who belongs to demos” - is a particularly pertinent question for post-conflict societies and new states where delimitation of demos has often been a result of ethnic cleansing and forced migration. The right to leave and return to one’s own country is one of the most basic human rights. And not only that: the right to return should be understood as a political principle for mitigation of the boundary problem since return of former citizens can be seen as a restoration of citizenship and attempt at reversing ethnic cleansing.

But who is entitled to exercise this right? One way of answering that question is by asking what is one’s own country. As the UN Human Rights Committee in its General Comment No. 27 on freedom of movement has stated: The scope of “his own country” is broader than the concept “country of his nationality”. It is not limited to nationality in a formal sense, that is, nationality acquired at birth or by conferral; it embraces, at the very least, an individual who, because of his or her special ties to or claims in relation to a given country, cannot be considered to be a mere alien.

According to this interpretation the right to return can be understood as contingent on the historical circumstances of potential returnees, that is, on individual or familial histories confirming “special ties to or claims in relation to a given country”. In decisions on establishing particular citizenship regimes, post-Yugoslav states’ initial determination of citizenry did not fully comply with the right to return to one’s own country. Moreover, even when the right to return was applied, the application of this right was ambiguous. Additionally, return processes indicate that there is no impartial nor unconditional support for the implementation of that right by the international community. As power politics determines whose rights will be acknowledged and assures whose rights will be respected, the concept of politics of return may be better suited for analysis of return to post-Yugoslav states.

Politics of return encompasses political, legislative and administrative efforts by governments, international organizations and non-government organizations to change opportunity structures for potential returnees by way of securing their right to return. The right to return is understood in its extensive version which includes the right to physical return, return of rights, and creation of political environment conducive to return. Evaluation of these politics depends on how they mirror the right to return. As is the case with other human rights, the right to return has become the object of political struggles and its exercise can be seen as a symbol of political action. Who is returning - and who says who is returning - is a background against which a particular account of citizenship is promoted, an account of what it means to be a citizen of a new country that is never neutral nor uncontroversial.

This study shows how particular politics of return are often a result of negotiations among political actors within citizenship constellations – a term first used by Rainer Bauböck to denote structures in which individuals’ statuses are dependent on individuals’ being concurrently connected to several political entities. For instance, host states are interested in reducing economic burdens that displaced populations put on their shoulders and, if they are powerful enough, they can impose return to countries of origin by way of conditioning it with state recognition, financial assistance, accession to international organizations, visa free regime etc.

Unfortunately, this finding reveals how people in equal or similar situations can be treated differently - they don’t have equal right to return nor equal restoration of rights needed for the sustainable return or free and informed choice on a durable solution other than return. Some of these inequalities of citizenship among (potential) returnees are deliberately produced in order to exclude former or potential members from new polities. They emerge as outcomes of preference of certain type of citizens over others which can be observed through provision of stronger incentives for return to those who are preferable (returnees of ethnic majority origin, co-ethnic investors and co-ethnic highly qualified individuals whose role is seen in strengthening the state and the nation). The return of those who are deemed undesirable (minority returnees, readmitted persons) is impeded or effectively blocked. Effective hindrance of return is, especially by passage of time, effective elimination of physically not present legal subjects of a polity from its political body.

Other inequalities of citizenship may emerge as more or less unintended consequences of individual’s linkage to complex and stratified relations within citizenship constellations which produce uneven citizenship. The strength and effectiveness of the pressure that a host country can exert over the country of origin in order to secure the right to return will depend on the status of the host country in the international community and its own relation toward the migrants on its territory. If host states are EU member states, then they will have significant leverage over the development of citizenship regimes of post-Yugoslav. However, if the host states are post-Yugoslav states themselves, they will usually fail to negotiate return unless assisted by more influential external actors, the EU and the EU member states.

Three politics of return in the post-Yugoslav space

There are three different politics of return that can be detected in the post-Yugoslav region and all of them are a direct or indirect result of conflict and post-conflict situations. The first is the politics of return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) that occurs in the aftermath of humanitarian emergencies. In one way or another, wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo were examples of what Douglas Porteous and Sandra Smith call domicide - the murder of home, and ultimately the murder of the idea of shared homeland - where enormous number of homes were destroyed or severely damaged, minority houses being systematically burnt or occupied by the members of the majority ethnic group.

Repossession of property is just one element of return politics, however, its importance as a pre-requisite to return and reintegration of the displaced is evident. The legal and institutional setting in Bosnia and Herzegovina allowed for a more effective politics of return as all the key documents, including the Dayton Peace Agreement, postulated that early return of refugees and displaced persons was hugely important for the settlement of the conflict. This, coupled with host western European states’ pressure over the development of effective mechanisms of property restitution so that Bosnian refugees had more conditions to return to Bosnia resulted in the most successful case in the post-Yugoslav region of the actual return of refugees and displaced persons and the return of their property rights.

Croatian politics of return was far less affected by international actors in comparison to the politics of return of Bosnia under international administration. Recognition of occupancy/tenancy rights in Bosnia, but not in Croatia is one of the examples of unevenness of citizenship within a particular citizenship constellation as former Yugoslav citizens who had the same type of tenancy rights were being treated differently in new post-Yugoslav states. Within the Croatian polity, the non-recognition of occupancy/tenancy rights produced relations of inequality between Croatian refugees arbitrarily stripped of their occupancy/tenancy rights due to their ethnicity and displacement and the rest of Croatian citizens who had an opportunity to buy their socially owned apartments during privatisation in the 1990s. Some sort of substitute for a solution of the problem was induced by the EU which made the opening of the EU-Croatia accession negotiations conditional upon finding a better answer to this problem.

In Kosovo, the return of displaced Kosovo Albanians was an immense success, as less than two months after the end of the war the vast majority of Albanian refugees and displaced persons had returned to their pre-conflict homes. On the other hand, the return of non-Albanians who had fled Kosovo when the international civilian mission was deployed has been fairly insignificant although the safe and unimpeded return of all refugees and displaced persons to their homes is unquestionably understood as one of the reasons for the establishment of the international civilian mission in Kosovo after 1999. As the majority of internally displaced persons who never returned to Kosovo fled to the rather powerless FR of Yugoslavia, then held in low regard internationally, which treated IDPs as citizens, there was no pressure from powerful European states who wished to initiate and facilitate the IDPs’ return. Instead, Serbia was often pressured from international donors to promote “local integration” of IDPs in Serbia. Therefore, the attention paid to their right to return was different from the one paid to the return of Kosovo Albanians, but also to all other displaced persons from other post-Yugoslav regions.

The second kind of politics of return in post-Yugoslav space is the politics of return of diaspora, especially highly qualified diaspora, i.e. scientific diaspora, and investment diaspora. As all post-Yugoslav states are countries of emigration, it came as no surprise that they developed rhetoric about (if not always policies of) engagement with their diasporas. An element of this engagement was promotion of diaspora return which was almost framed as a test of the diaspora’s commitment to the maintenance and restoration of the homeland. Potential returnees that are prioritized in this discourse on return are those with marketable skills and resources. This preference for a certain group is usually less of a problem than discrimination against a particular group whose return has been denied although it can explain the particular political complexity of diaspora policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The concept of Bosnian diaspora is somewhat contestable. It comes down to the question of who belongs to the Bosnian diaspora - Bosniaks only, or all Bosnian citizens? As long as “who” within diaspora has the right to return is not ethnically but more inclusively defined - with the reference to special ties to a given country - the politics of return of diaspora can be tailored to uphold more democratic boundaries (e.g. the inclusive Bosnian diaspora).

Finally, the most recent form of politics of return in post-Yugoslav space is the politics of return of the abject class of migrants - rejected asylum seekers, irregular migrants, convicted criminals, those labelled by Peter Nyers as deportspora. Return of deportspora is also a form of restoration of citizenship of those who for various reasons, from discrimination to economic hardship, informally tried to renounce their citizenship and become members of other polities. This return is more of a result of the European countries’ politics of return of those that they reject as immigrants than the result of the post-Yugoslav politics of return of their own emigrants. The former states usually had to persuade the latter states to accept their returning citizens and sign readmission agreements to facilitate this return with visa liberalisation (Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) or state recognition (Kosovo). As a matter of fact, politics of return of deportspora features a somewhat paradoxical application of the right to return to one’s own country given that this right is imposed on returnees. The boundaries are, then, confirmed or redrawn as the effect of external demoi of deporting states that are confirming or redrawing their own boundaries. In all post-Yugoslav states affected by this type of return - mainly Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo - the most complex question elucidating a problematic conceptualization of home (where is one’s own country?) is that dealing with deportation of children to their parents’ countries of origin - their parents’ former homes. For many of these children, deporting states are the only home countries they know. It seems that in some of these cases, deportation could go against the special ties requirement, that is, that one’s ties to a particular deporting country may be special enough to justify interpretations of their right to return to the deporting country as their own country.

Return and democracy

Democracy is as a political regime of which political equality is a constitutive element. Determining the “who” of democracy in new or restored states ought not be separate from determination of those who have special ties to a particular country and, ultimately, the right to return. If citizenship or denizenship should be accorded to those who have special ties to political community, it is important to note that boundary drawing and particular politics of return may work to break those ties for some citizens. Reconstruction of homes and homelands or building of new homes and new homelands requires returnees and citizens to be able to re-establish broken ties and reclaim their polities. Return politics are, therefore, essential for evaluating whether the democratic legitimacy of citizenship regimes is compromised or not.