Territoriality and Citizenship: Membership and Sub-State Polities in Post-Yugoslav Space

Dejan Stjepanović
Bilingual street names in Istria

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.

The relevance of citizenship goes both beyond the borders of states (as in cases of supra national citizenship such as that of the EU) and also below them. Regional, sub-state polities of various sizes often have powers to define membership in them as a result of which specific rights and duties of citizenship arise in these political communities. These rights and duties might differ from those in the state-wide polity in various aspects.  Residents of Serbia’s Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, for example, enjoy a set of rights which are differentiated from the rights Serbian citizens residing in the remainder of the Republic of Serbia enjoy. As an illustration of the implications of territorially-differentiated citizenship and differentiated definition of membership in sub-state polities and what they mean for ordinary citizens, one could look at the example of devolved education policies in Vojvodina, in particular the annual school calendar. For school children in Vojvodina, Christmas break starts before 25 December and lasts till after 10 January, thus taking into consideration the multi-confessional structure of the population and the fact that over a third of Vojvodina’s population are non-ethnic Serbs out of which the majority celebrates Christmas on 25 December, according to Gregorian calendar, while Orthodox Serbs celebrate it on 7 January. In the remainder of Serbia, in which membership is primarily defined as belonging to the Serb nation, Christmas school break usually starts a week later, in time for the Serbian Orthodox Christmas. That the demographic picture corresponds to the multi-ethnic definition of membership in Vojvodina  can be seen in Vojvodina’s Statute, the main legal document of the autonomous province. In its first article, it states that Vojvodina is a region in which multiculturalism and multi-confessionalism are traditionally nurtured while the polity is defined as belonging to its resident citizens (građani/građanke). This example shows how citizenship, and in particular membership as one of the elements of citizenship, is defined differently at diverse territorial levels within one state.  

Nested citizenship

Just like state structure which is usually divided into municipalities, sometimes into regions, provinces etc., citizenship regimes can also have nested structures which can be more or less formally sanctioned. In a strictly legal sense a two-tiered legal citizenship existed in Socialist Yugoslavia. One was by default a citizen of one of the federal units, i.e. republic within the federation and of Yugoslavia as a whole, in some ways similar to the EU citizenship which also recognises national (member state citizenship) and that of the supranational European Union. Apart from Bosnia and Herzegovina where this was the result of peace negotiations in 1995, no current state in the post-Yugoslav space has a two-tiered formal, legal citizenship of the Yugoslav or EU type. But as the example of Vojvodina shows, polities with some self-governing competences, despite the lack of formal sub-state citizenship, do decide on who belongs to their body politic which in turn affects the rights and duties of their (sub-state) citizenry.  Determining membership criteria of their sub-state citizenry is, as the paper argues, closely related to the circumstances in which and reasons for which this sub-state polity was created.  The sub-state polities  analysed in the paper are not only constitutionally-defined autonomous regions such as Vojvodina but also other territories that have a certain degree of autonomous decision-making powers, something  Suksi [i] calls “autonomy –like arrangements”.    Other cases analysed in the paper have similar or different definitions of membership in their polities which are often outlined in their supreme documents such as various constitutions and statutes. The paper broadly groups sub –state polities or the attempt to create them since the break-up of the Yugoslav federation into five general categories.

Categories of sub-state polities and membership

The first category contains historic sub-state territories (those with a salient historical precedent) whose membership criteria are multi-ethnic and are based on residency. Some of the prominent cases in the group are the already mentioned case of Vojvodina in Serbia and Istria in Croatia (a historic region that is formally bilingual – see the photo above). The paper argues that during the autocratic regimes that marked the 1990s, nationalising central states tried to remove as many powers as possible from these polities. Since the changes of regimes in 2000 in both Serbia and Croatia, the existence of these multi-ethnic polities is tolerated by the central states. A degree of nested citizenship does indeed exist in these cases despite the fact that memberships are defined (by multi-ethnic and residency-based criteria) differently from the way membership was defined at the central state level (more ethnically exclusive).The second group of cases contains those where membership is formally defined as multi-ethnic but they lack a historic precedent. Some of the prominent cases in this group and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Brčko District of Bosnia and Herzegovina. All of these cases are a result of post-conflict peace settlements and significant international involvement. They exhibit obvious elements of ethnic power-sharing and limited political rights of non-dominant ethnic groups.The third group of cases are in some ways similar to the second group because of the fact that they are post-conflict polities and the results of peace processes. However, these are primarily designed to address the demands of a single ethnic group within a country and their territorial expanse is generally smaller than of the previously mentioned groups . Some of the prominent cases in this group are the municipalities with ethnic Serb majorities in Kosovo or those with ethnic Albanian population in Macedonia.  Existence of these polities is largely tied to ethnic demography and their institutions are frequently hijacked by ethnic entrepreneurs.The last two groups of cases include territorial polities which were addressing secessionist demands of a single ethnic group. These were cases in the 1990s, such as Kosovo (in Serbia) and Krajina (in Croatia), with more or less prominent historical precedents or Herzeg-Bosnia and Republika Srpska (both in Bosnia and Herzegovina) which did not possess an institutional precedent and corresponded to ethnic territories and the outcomes of war. The membership in these polities was constructed as ethnically exclusive, and ethnic cleansing was widespread.

In conclusion

The paper concludes that ethnic principles of membership in territorial polities were dominant at both state and sub-state levels. The logic of territory owned by a particular ethnic group was pervasive. This contributed to a zero-sum logic that inevitably produced the same majority-minority problem it was supposed to alleviate in the first place, just with reversed roles. The outcomes of this zero-sum ethnic logic are highly unpredictable and can have disastrous effects on the populations. Creation of sub-state polities was often considered as a necessity in the post-conflict period and served to segregate ethnic groups rather than as a genuine tool for territorial management of diverse territories. Post-Yugoslav ethnically legitimised nation-states also shied away from institutionalising minority meso-level polities in both the 1990s and 2000s. One of the problems of equating polities with ethno-majoritarian territories, the paper argues, is their unidimensionality. This is especially true for those polities without historical precedents or strong functional logic that would underpin the territorial boundaries. This, as some of the cases illustrate, can cause numerous problems for the viability of these polities and cement ethnicity as the only criterion defining political membership as well as rights in the long run. A few cases of multi-ethnic polities still exist but these are exceptions rather than the rule. They nevertheless challenge the zero-sum logic of exclusive ethno-territorial polities. They further illustrate that nested citizenship regimes are possible in post-Yugoslav space, even if memberships in nesting and nested polities are differently conceptualised.

[i] Markku Suksi (ed.), Autonomy - Applications and Implications. Dordrecht: Kluwer Law International, 1998.