Reinventing the state: (e)migration and citizenship in Albania

Gëzim Krasniqi
A mural on Skenderbej Square in Tirana

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.

Generally, citizenship represents one of the main pillars of a polity and often becomes a synonym of statehood itself. It is the means by which a polity regulates its relations with its subjects, its mutual rights and obligations. Indeed, due to its complex and even contested nature, citizenship often stands high on the political agenda. However, until a few years ago, citizenship (shtetësi) was not on the political or even the academic agenda in Albania. The reasons for this lie in the history of the development of the Albanian state and its geopolitical context.

In the first phase of the consolidation of the Albanian state, citizenship and its related issues were totally sidelined by other concerns related to the very existence of the state, its borders and the type of political regime. Hence, no citizenship law was enacted until 1929, some seventeen years after the declaration of independence of Albania. Under communism, citizenship lost a lot of the meanings usually attached to it (such as the political rights of citizens) due to the ‘bunker’ mentality of the Albanian communist leadership and the unparalleled direct state control of the society, economy and politics in Albania. In the late 1970s Albania withdrew completely from the international system and all organisations of which it was a member, with the exception of the United Nations (UN). In this period, citizenship (at least in practice) did not mean the right of a citizen to have rights; rather, it meant the state’s unlimited and uncontrolled right to limit citizens’ rights, including the rights to travel abroad and even migrate from one part of the country to another.

The fall of communism was followed by massive waves of emigration, and the subsequent liberalisation and democratisation of the Albanian state. Only then did citizenship, in its modern and liberal sense, start to enter the political agenda in Albania. The comprehensive reforms in the field of citizenship legislation undertaken since then reflect the country’s attempts to democratise and achieve European Union (EU) membership. In this respect, the approval of the European Commission’s proposal to enable citizens of Albania (and Bosnia and Herzegovina) to travel with biometric passports to the Schengen countries without a visaby the Council of Ministers in November 2010 represents a landmark in Albania’s attempts to integrate with the EU.

The present citizenship legislation in Albania is of a high standard (in terms of being in compliance with the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the 1997 European Convention on Nationality). In addition, the Albanian citizenship legislation allows dual citizenship and lacks ethno-centric formulations and provisions, a fact that has been widely appreciated by international organisations, and seen with suspicion and a certain sense of disappointment by Albania’s co-ethnics in the successor states of Yugoslavia.

However, despite the fact that the legislation is not ethno-centric, the Albanian state occasionally has extended some citizenship rights to its co-ethnics in the former Yugoslav states. The Albanian Ministry of Education has, for example, introduced a quota system for those Albanians from the neighbouring countries who want to study at public universities in Albania. In a similar vein, the President of Albania (using his constitutional rights) has granted citizenship to a number of prominent academicians, artists and sportsmen from the ranks of Albanian co-ethnics originating from Kosovo or Macedonia.

Heading towards an emigrant state

After Enver Hoxha’s death in 1985, and especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Albania’s communist regime was confronted with demands for democratic change. In response to these pressures, the regime introduced some measures, which for the first time permitted a degree of pluralism and a modicum of free enterprise, including the lifting of the ban on religion, and the legalising of political demonstrations and later political parties. In June 1990, the government decreed that all citizens could be issued with passports to travel abroad. Although the new measures guaranteed freedom of movement for the first time in many years, the authorities were slow and highly selective in issuing passports. In the meantime, an exodus of people without parallel in any of the other former communist countries began in Albania in July 1990, when several thousand Albanians took refuge in foreign embassies in Tirana. In 1991, boats crossing the Adriatic to Italy were almost submerged by the dense crowds of Albanian passengers, while in the same year thousands of Albanians crossed the border with Greece. According to data provided by the Albanian government, almost one million Albanians (almost one third of the total population) have migrated abroad since 1991. More than half million went to Greece, 250,000 to Italy and the rest to other EU countries and North America. This has turned Albania into a major emigrant country.

Following the demise of communism and the organisation of the first multiparty elections, dual citizenship was introduced for the first time in Albania in July 1992 through a short presidential decree, which amended the 1954 decree. However, this decree allows dual citizenship only for ‘aliens of Albanian nationality or origin’ who can acquire Albanian citizenship by request without renouncing their previous citizenship. This decree was later promulgated (with some modifications) into a law, this time providing for multiple citizenship for the same category of people. On 5 August 1998, Albania adopted its first post-communist law on citizenship and on 21 October 1998, the Albanian Parliament adopted the state’s first post-communist constitution, which was later approved by a popular referendum a month later. In some ways, this completed the legal framework on Albanian citizenship.

Due to the fact that the constitutional setting in Albania remained incomplete for some seven years after the fall of communism, between 1992 and 1997 Albanian citizenship seems to have been easily accessible. A number of people from the Middle East and the Gulf Region, who had come to Albania as foreign investors, were granted Albanian citizenship, among whom were individuals linked to terrorist networks and organisations, including Al-Qaeda. In this period, according to the data provided by the Office of the President of Albania, some 2,530 persons acquired Albanian citizenship, with the majority of them being Albanians from the former Yugoslavia, but also people from the Albanian diaspora. In 1992 alone, 1,107 persons acquired Albanian citizenship. On the other hand, between 1992 and 1997 only 668 people lost Albanian citizenship.

The remodelled citizenship regime

The present law on Albanian citizenship was harmonised with the recommendations of the European Convention on Nationality (1997), and ratified by the Albanian Government on 19 September 2002. Legally, Albanian citizenship is acquired by birth, by naturalisation and by descent. Everyone born of at least one parent with Albanian citizenship acquires Albanian citizenship automatically. Regarding naturalisation, if a foreigner proves that he is of Albanian origin (the legislation is unclear whether this means ethnic origin or refers to people from the Albanian diaspora) up to the second degree, be it even from one parent, in that case the time of residence in the Republic of Albania must be at least three years. Exceptional naturalisation is applied in cases when the Republic of Albania has a scientific, economic, cultural or national interest. In this case, it is the President of the Republic who, based on the proposal of a ministry or other state organ for exceptional merits and contribution to the state of Albania, grants citizenship to an alien.

All the data regarding statistics on cases of acquisition of citizenship is available on the official web page of the President of the Republic. However, information on refused applications is harder to find. Between 1991 and 2007 some 3,184 foreigners, mostly Albanians from former Yugoslavia, acquired Albanian citizenship.

On the other hand,    between 1992 and 2007, almost 5,000 (4,949) persons lost their Albanian citizenship; in 2002 alone, 1,105 persons lost their Albanian citizenship by release. This number is an indicator of the integration of the Albanian diaspora into various host countries in Europe. This trend will certainly increase in the future, since more emigrants will be fulfilling residence criteria with regards to naturalisation.

Irrespective of these procedures, implementation of the legislation still remains problematic in Albania. Despite the fact that Albanian law on citizenship prevents statelessness in principle, various NGOs have raised concerns about the registration of newborn children in state registering offices, especially in the case of marginalised communities, such as the Roma. As a result, many children remain unregistered and consequently stateless, mainly because of negligence by the state authorities.

The politics of citizenship

One issue has dominated political debates in Albania from 1991– state consolidation and transformation. Despite considerable progress, Albania’s integration into the European political structures has been slow; it joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 1991, the Council of Europe in 1995 and signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) in June 2006. In April 2008 Albania became a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member and submitted its application for EU membership on 28 April 2009.

Furthermore, Albania’s relations with Greece — which encompass, among others, the status of the Albanian minority and Albanian emigrants in Greece, as well as the status of the Greek minority in Albania and its relations to Greece —has been a constant issue in Albanian politics over the last twenty years. There is a significant Albanian community in Greece, composed of both autochthonous Albanians from Northern Greece (known as Chams, and estimated to be around 200,000, most of whom were deported to Albania although some still live in north-western Greece) and recent Albanian emigrants who moved to Greece after the fall of communism in Albania. As far as the Greek minority (estimated to be around 50-75,000) in Albania is concerned, they constitute Albania’s largest national minority (the rest include Macedonians and Montenegrins, Roma and Vlachs/Aromanians). Though at present they are fully integrated into the political system and social life in Albania, in the early 1990s there were a series of controversies over their status. These included Albania’s 1992 decision to ban ethnic or religious parties from standing in future elections, as well as Albania’s refusal to grant citizenship to Anastasios Yannulatos, an ethnic Greek who was appointed by the Patriarchate in Istanbul as Albania’s archbishop in 1993.

In 1992, Greece started issuing a ‘Special Identity Card of Homogeneis’ to Greeks from Albania, who in the Greek legal order are defined as homogeneis, meaning individuals of Greek origin and of consciousness. The card entitles its holder to residency, the right to work, and access to special benefits for social security, health and education. However, there is evidence that Greek authorities also provide the homogeneis identity card to a large number of Christian Orthodox Albanians as well as Vlachs who have migrated to Greece. Thus, according to information from the Greek Ministry of Public Order, approximately 200,000 (which exceeds by far the number of Greeks in Albania), were granted the status of homogeneis, and most probably will soon acquire Greek citizenship. As a result of economic pressures, many Vlachs and Albanians, including Muslim Albanians who convert to Orthodoxy, claim to be Greeks to get the status of homogeneis and later citizenship.

On the other hand, the rest of the Albanian emigrants in Greece, which represent more than half of the total number of immigrants in Greece and amount to more than half a million, reside in Greece either as undocumented immigrants or documented allogeneis immigrants (who posses a ‘white/green card’). Although the number of Albanian emigrants who have acquired Greek citizenship in last twenty years is low, it is expected to significantly increase, following the 2010 decision by the Greek government to undertake a comprehensive reform of Greek citizenship law (which includes liberalisation of the criteria for naturalisation of aliens and granting of voting rights for legal residents).

Albania’s large diaspora communities play a crucial role in the economic wellbeing of the country: they provide remittances that exceed $500 million per year and make up some 15 per cent of the country’s GDP. Despite this, their role in political developments in Albania is marginal. Albania does not provide voting rights for its emigrants; hence, no parliamentary seats are reserved for them.

Finally, Albania’s domestic and foreign policy is also affected by the developments in Kosovo and in the former Yugoslav republics (Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro), which have significant Albanian communities within their borders. Albania still remains a prime point of reference (a kin-state) for Albanians living in the neighbouring countries, despite the fact that in the aftermath of Kosovo’s independence Prishtina is emerging as a major centre of power and reference in what Miranda Vickers has called the ‘new Albanian space’ in the Balkans.

Heading towards a trans-border Albanian citizenship?

Albania’s opening to the world and the massive waves of emigration to Greece, Italy, and the rest of the Europe introduced citizenship to the political agenda of Albania, thus raising awareness among its people of the rights, duties and legal implications of citizenship. However, Albania’s rocky path to democracy, marked by state weakness and deep political polarisation, which ultimately led to the almost-total state collapse in 1997, prevented the country from reforming and reconstructing its legal constitutional order, including citizenship legislation.

Following the 2010 decision of European Union to grant Albania visa-free travel to the Schengen Zone, the Albanian passport has became more ‘prestigious’ and demand for it may increase, particularly among Albanians in Kosovo. Many countries in the wider region, including Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Greece have already extended their citizenship to their ethnic-kin in the neighbouring countries. It remains to be seen whether Albania will follow a similar path, a decision that could lead to a situation in which some six million ethnic Albanians in the Balkans would have Albanian citizenship.


Gëzim Krasniqi, works at the University of Edinburgh as a Research Assistant on the CITSEE project. He is undertaking his PhD in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh.

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