Macedonian Citizen: ‘Former Yugoslav’, Future European?

Ljubica Spaskovska
Old train station in Skopje

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.

Few of the Western observers who watched in disbelief as the most prosperous socialist country disappeared in flames could have envisaged the peaceful emergence of an independent Macedonian state. As Stefan Troebst in The New Macedonian Question (2001) observes, ‘the changes of scene in 1991 came all the more drastically: Bulgaria, the main opponent in the Macedonian controversy, made an attempt to style itself as the protector of Skopje, whereas Greece, along with Serbia, would have preferred that the new Macedonian state disappear from the face of the earth’. A small landlocked country in the south of the Balkan Peninsula, Macedonia has nevertheless managed to establish itself as a new political entity on the European map, though only after an arduous process of contentions and negotiations, both internal and external.

Macedonia’s relatively short tradition of statehood can be traced back to 1945, when the then People’s Republic of Macedonia became one of the six federal republics in the new socialist Yugoslavia. Hence, in addition to the foundation (socialist) phase during which a separate Macedonian citizenship regime was established in parallel with the federal Yugoslav citizenship, the transformation of the Macedonian citizenship regime could be analyzed within a framework of four consecutive phases (consolidation, contestation, intervention, and stabilisation) which have arguably at times overlapped and have provided for a complex interplay of factors and consequences.

The socialist phase of Macedonian citizenship evolution had the corresponding dimension of supranational Yugoslav citizenship, while the consecutive two phases are related to the phenomenon of abortive ethno-national citizenship, during which the Macedonian state made an attempt at styling itself as the nation-state of ethnic Macedonians. The intervention phase put an end to the exclusive ethno-national concept and stopped the inter-ethnic strife and conflict in 2001, but engineered what I propose to call a specific ethnizenship. This refers to a state where citizens realize their rights, duties and participation in the public and political sphere solely as members of ethnic or religious communities. A final stabilisation phase could be said to have started after the last amendments to the citizenship legislation in 2008, which in conjunction with Macedonia’s attempts to join the EU, could possibly lead to the introduction of a new type of supranational, European citizenship.   

The Yugoslav Embrace

Although Macedonia formally entered post-Second World War socialist Yugoslavia as an equal partner in the federation (and in the process was recognised as a separate political, national and cultural entity for the first time in its history), it was de facto a ‘junior partner’. As one of the constituent Yugoslav nations, it went through processes which finalised its nation-building: the codification of the alphabet and the language was followed by the establishment of the state university, Macedonian television and radio services, an Academy of Sciences and Arts, theatres, opera and ballet ensembles, and publishing houses. With an improved economy and better standards of living, with drastically decreasing illiteracy rates and a relatively free realm of mobility and cultural expression (provided one did not question or oppose Tito’s regime and Yugoslavia’s raison d’être), Macedonia had every reason to appreciate its Yugoslav years and view the federation as a veritable safe haven. Yugoslavia provided something of a buffer zone between the newly established republic and its neighbours, mainly Bulgaria and Greece who refused to endorse the existence of a Macedonian nation or a state.

Thus, ‘the newly enfranchised groups’ such as the Macedonians and the Bosnian Muslims, but also non-South Slavic groups such as the Albanians, were those that ‘found their opportunities for access to the system’s rewards enhanced’, as Friedman (1996) argues. Thus, the pre-1974 Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia established that the nationalities and national minorities living in Macedonia were equal in rights and duties with the Macedonian majority. The 1974 Yugoslav Constitution re-introduced the precedence of the national dimension of the republic as ‘a state based on sovereignty of nations, the authority and self-management of working people and all workers, and…a socialist self-managing democratic community of working people, citizens and equal nations and nationalities’. Thus, the 1974 Constitution of socialist Macedonia for the first time mentioned, besides the titular Macedonian, two particular nationalities – Albanians and Turks – in the definition of the Republic.

Imagining the Nation-State

The dissolution of Yugoslavia awoke internal voices of discontent, primarily from the Albanians, Macedonia’s largest ethnic minority. With the dissolution, Albanian status was downgraded from that of a recognised Yugoslav nationality (narodnost), with all associated political and cultural rights, to that of a minority in independent Macedonia. However, the erosion of minority rights had begun earlier, as 1989 saw the amendment of the Constitution of socialist Macedonia where the preamble omitted the Albanian and the Turkish nationalities from the definition of the Republic. Moreover, even though by 1991 Kosovo had lost its autonomy, it was still the point of reference for many Macedonian Albanians. It was now part of a foreign country, the newly established Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, that cut the existing ties between ethnic Albanian communities in Macedonia and Kosovo.

It was in a highly polarised and unstable political context in November 1992 that the belated and long debated Law on Citizenship was enacted. With it being based on the principle of legal continuity with the citizenship of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, 1,878,820 people ex officio acquired Macedonian citizenship (ECRI 1999). However, the process of transforming former Yugoslav citizens into citizens of newly independent Macedonia was not without controversy.

The ethnic Macedonian majority perceived the considerable number of Albanian non-national residents or unregistered residents from Kosovo and Serbia as a problem and a threat. Several controversial provisions arguably targeting this group from the 1992 Law on Citizenship received criticism: the long residency requirement of fifteen years, the language requirement, the proof of sufficient income as well as the requirement that a person seeking ordinary naturalisation should be mentally and physically healthy. Particularly problematic was the short one-year transitional registration period for former Yugoslav citizens, the high residency requirement and the fact that many Albanians and Roma had to reapply through the ordinary naturalisation procedure, despite the fact that many had resided in Macedonia for many years but lacked proof of registration.

It was only with the admission of Macedonia to the UN in April of 1993 that its sovereignty and citizenship received full recognition. Nevertheless, Macedonia still went through a troubled and lengthy process of state-building and international recognition in the 1990s. The prominent phenomenon of ethnicisation and politicisation of citizenship in this period can be understood as a partial response of a weak state to menacing voices and initiatives from within, and hostile and diplomatically stronger ones from without.

Learning Multiculturalism

At the time of its signature in August 2001, the Ohrid Framework Agreement seemed a contested product of forced and delicate bargaining, but it marked the start of a new era for Macedonia. Carved along ethnic lines but also ambiguously evoking civic values, the constitutional amendments and subsequent legislation established a system of de facto associative/consensual democracy, which includes a double-majority (or so-called Badinter majority) voting system, requiring both a parliamentary majority and a majority among Albanian and other non-majority MPs, for laws that directly concern the culture, use of language, education, personal documentation and use of symbols. The constitutional and legislative amendments deriving from the Ohrid Framework Agreement put Macedonia on a long road of reform, which also included its citizenship legislation.

The comprehensive amendments to the citizenship law the following year came after the ratification of the European Convention on Nationality in 2003. A new reduced residency requirement of eight years was introduced in February 2004. Most importantly, the amended Law introduced a new transitional provision to target former citizens of SFR Yugoslavia. The transitional period of two years was primarily aimed at resolving the pending cases of unregulated citizenship of mostly Roma and Albanian residents in Macedonia, who under the previous 1992 Law failed to fulfil and/or to prove the fifteen-year residency requirement.

The ethno-national conception of citizenship, emphasising the ‘ownership’ of the country by its ethnic Macedonian majority from the first decade of Macedonian independence, was replaced after the 2001 conflict by an ethnicised one, where belonging to one of Macedonia’s ethnic communities became the primary factor, effectively rendering an individual’s ethnic identity visible and determining his or her access to various rights. Although the citizenship legislation was amended to accommodate the most prominent European standards as set out in the European Convention on Nationality, allowed for the solving of the majority of cases of unregulated status, and considerably improved the different procedures, the broader arena of citizenship regarding citizens’ rights and sense of belonging became all the more ethnicised and thus produced new challenges to Macedonia’s fragile social and political spheres.

Skopje-Brussels via Athens

It was not until 1999 that the Stabilization and Association process was launched between the EU and Macedonia, but this in no way explicitly offered the prospect of membership. Macedonia signed its Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) in April 2001 and in March 2004 it submitted its formal application for membership. It took a year and a half before Macedonia was given candidate status, in December 2005. While Croatia received its candidate status and a recommendation for start of accession talks in the same year (2004), it took four years for the Commission to recommend the start of  talks for Macedonia (October 2009). Although it was the only Yugoslav republic not to be involved in the dissolution conflicts, Macedonia has been seriously lagging behind in its economic progress and Euro-Atlantic integration. The reasons being numerous, both external and internal, it is however the combination of many, including the unsolved conflict with Greece over the country’s name, which have produced the stalemate. However, prospective membership for Macedonia in the European Union has been among the rare, if not the only common goal and platform for the different political subjects and major ethnic groups.

The prospect of entering a new supranational sphere, where European citizenship would provide the second protective layer and expand boundaries of mobility, might be an impetus for overcoming and leaving behind extremist or purely ethnically motivated claims in Macedonia. The opening up of borders, as would be the case with all Western Balkans countries as they entered the EU, would not only allow for the renewal of ties and greater mobility of trans-border communities and minorities, but one could also expect that it would decrease the political significance of borders and revisionist or irredentist pretensions. However, Macedonia’s transition from EU candidate to full EU member might prove to be a long and difficult process.

Citizenship in the former Yugoslav and the Macedonian context is yet to have its dimensions of status, rights and equality strengthened and its dimension of membership/belonging weakened in importance. Indeed, one could say, in the words of M. E. Koppa, that ‘the only option for the viability of the state is genuinely unlinking nationality and citizenship.’ In a region which has traditionally existed and developed within supranational political and socio-cultural entities and frameworks, such as multilingual empires or multiethnic federations, it would be a logical and a hopeful consequence that a new type of supranational citizenship and belonging would provide the answer to many pending questions. Enhancing the role of the civic and diminishing the political significance of ethnicity - thus shifting the perception of the ethnizen towards that of a citizen - would be a commendable overture to a new era.


Ljubica Spaskovska a doctoral student at the University of Exeter, researching the varieties of supra-nationalism in the former Yugoslavia. She worked as a full-time research fellow at CITSEE and had previously completed an MA in Central European History at CEU Budapest and an MA in Democracy and Human Rights in SEE at the Universities of Sarajevo and Bologna.

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