Serbian Citizenship: The Recent Developments

Marko Milenkovic
Parliament of Serbia

The citizenship regime in Serbia has gone through a series of changes in the past twenty years that reflect the shifting political and ethnic landscape in the former Yugoslavia. This blog offers a brief account of recent legal and political developments influencing the complex citizenship regime in Serbia. After adoption of the Law on citizenship in 2004 and the amendments to it in 2007, there have been no crucial changes to the citizenship regime nor has it remained a topic of wider public debate. However, there have been more than a few interesting legal and political developments over the past two years. Firstly, there were a number of acts adopted that are important for the regime. Secondly, citizenship itself and related issues remain at the forefront of the dispute between Serbia and the province of Kosovo over its status as an independent state.

The Law on Citizenship of the Republic of Serbia provides for facilitated acquisition of Serbian citizenship, particularly for refugees from the former republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, members of the Serb diaspora, Serbs living in the region but also provides opportunities for people with ties to other ethnic groups living in Serbia to gain citizenship. Serbia has witnessed a large population change over the past two decades, including depopulation caused by high mortality and low birth rates, influx of refugees from other parts of the former SFRY and continuous emigration from the country mostly caused by economic reasons. With such a changing population of citizens and residents, there are a number of issues that still remain to be settled especially in terms of the position of refuges and internally displaced persons, legally invisible people, public registers and residence of citizens.

The Law on management of migrations was adopted in November 2012, transforming the Commissariat for Refugees, the central institution for dealing with refugee and internally displaced persons issues into the Commissariat for Refugees and Migrations, reflecting its expansion into the fields of care and integration for asylum seekers and reintegration of returnees on grounds of the agreements on readmission (of Serbian citizens who are unlawfully residing in various European countries). The Law stipulates that the Commissariat will keep a unique register of missing persons from the time of the armed conflicts in former Yugoslavia (1991 to 1995) and in the territory of Kosovo-Metohija in the period from 1998 to 2000, as well as the register of exhumed, identified and non-identified remains from individual and mass graves. In 2012 the Serbian Parliament ratified the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which was an important symbolic step, given that Serbian legislation already provides for avoidance of statelessness. In March 2012 the Government of Serbia also decided to remove the administrative fee for citizens from the region (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Romania, Hungary and Albania) who wish to either apply for the acquisition or termination of Serbian citizenship. This move makes it even easier for a wide group of people to acquire Serbian citizenship under less strict conditions.

In November 2011, the new Law on Permanent and Temporary Residence of Citizens was adopted. It governs the registration of permanent and temporary residence and notification of a temporary stay abroad of citizens and their return to the country. The major contribution of the Law is the possibility to register the permanent residence on a wide range of bases (property ownership/rent, spouse’s address, etc.) and even to register at the addresses of a local social security centre. This is an important step towards the resolution of a pressing problem of “legally invisible people” in Serbia who mostly belong to the Roma community, who are either not listed or not properly enlisted in registers of birth and citizens, and lack ID and travel documents. With this legislative solution, the legally invisible will now be able to be enlisted in birth registers and in citizenship registers, to obtain documents and enjoy all the rights envisaged for the citizens. This change will hopefully provide for their better protection and make the population less prone to becoming victims of organised crime, namely human trafficking.

The Serbian government has also adopted two important strategies – a National strategy for resolving problems of refugees and internally displaced persons for the period from 2011 to 2014 and a Strategy for preservation and strengthening of relations between Serbia and ethnic Serbs living in neighboring countries. The latter has caused tensions as the original version provided for the recognition of the political constituency of Serb people in Montenegro, and therefore the Strategy was amended. The National strategy for resolving problems of refugees and internally displaced persons for the period from 2011 to 2014  sets several goals for the improvement of the position of some 86,000 refugees still living in Serbia and over 200,000 internally displaced people who fled Kosovo after the war in 1999. The Strategy outlines major problems that refugees still face in Serbia in regard to registration of the unique identity number of citizens and obtaining different documents – travel documents, identity cards, employment booklets (official document required from all persons who are employed or wish to register with National employment service) and provide in general measures for their resolution.  

On October 9, 2012 the five year deadline expired for two groups of people to acquire the Serbian citizenship in a simplified procedure – citizens of SFRY who became citizens of countries derived from the former SFRY but have registered place of residence in the territory in Serbia for nine years on February 27, 2005; and Montenegrin citizens who had registered their place of residence in Serbia by on June 3, 2006. As dual citizenship is still excluded by the Montenegrin Law, and no agreement has been reached by the two states on possible dual citizenship, the issue remains open and a source of contestation.

One major legal development was an agreement between Serbian and Kosovo institutions on public registers. After the war of 1999, public registers for the territory of the Autonomous province of Kosovo and Metohija were taken to Central Serbia and local municipalities throughout Central Serbia entrusted with keeping these public records. In 2000 new registers were enacted in Kosovo under United Nations Mission in Kosovo, and de facto led to the duplication of these important data bases. In July 2011, an agreement was reached between Serbian and Kosovo institutions under the patronage of the EU for the copies of public registers for the territory of Kosovo to be handed to Kosovo institutions. To facilitate the transfer of copies of public registrars to Kosovo the Government of Serbia adopted in November 2011 the Bylaw on special procedure for processing data contained in registers for the Autonomous province of Kosovo and Metohija which provides for copies to be handed to the Kosovo institutions. The critiques of this were twofold. On one hand, members of majority of (then) opposition parties claimed that the given Bylaw is an act of treason and recognition of Kosovo independence. The other line of critique was based on the type of data provided and the manner in which the government has decided to regulate this act. It was argued by the Commissioner for the access to information of public information and personal data protection that the Bylaw adopted pursuant to the (then) Article 12 of Law on personal data protection was unconstitutional as the Constitution of Serbia (Article 42) provided that usage may only be governed by the Law and not the Bylaw. In June 2012, the Constitutional Court declared this part of the Law unconstitutional, leaving the government Bylaw without a proper legal basis. Nevertheless, the first copies of the registers were already handed to Kosovo’s institutions in December 2011 and are gradually being transferred.

Though recent developments reflect open issues in the region or deal with the legacy of past two decades, they nonetheless represent a gradual normalisation of relations and improvement of respect for human and citizenship rights.