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Croatian citizenship regime and its challenges following the EU accession

Following the first two decades of Croatian independence it may be argued that Croatian citizenship regime was marked by one distinctive feature: it seems that all scholars involved in the research of its various aspects agree that it promoted a specific idea of Croatian polity in which ethnic Croats, regardless of their residence, constitute a core nation of the new state. However, since Croatian Constitution defines Croatia as a national state of Croat nation, but also recognizes the existence of twenty two additional national minority groups, the debates on the Croatian citizenship[1] resulted in the competing theoretical descriptions of its nature: authors such as Hayden (1992) argued that in early 1990s it was a typical example of Constitutional nationalism, in which the newly elected Croatian political elites utilized key constitutional legislation to promote interests of ethnic Croats, often on behalf of the interests of various categories of ethnic minorities. On the other hand, constitutional provisions that nominally granted an opportunity for a wide scope of minority rights were interpreted by several Croatian scholars as an example of constitutional protection of minority rights which is in the line of the principles of the contemporary liberal democratic states. Finally, authors such as Štiks argue that following the turbulent 1990s, Croatian citizenship regime witnessed such changes that today it is an example of Smooha’s model of ethnic democracy. However, in order to fully comprehend the evolution of Croatian citizenship regime, once has to put its analysis into the wider complex political context and to relation to particular political goals that Croatia aimed to accomplish from its independence till today.

During the 1990s, Croatia’s primary goal was to consolidate its statehood. Besides the challenges that most of the post-communist countries faced in this period, such as transition to democracy and to free market economy, Croatia had to establish its statehood in the context of the break-up of the former multi-national federation. The Croatian nationalist elites of the 1990s perceived the new state to be a national state of Croat ethnic nation, in which other ethnic groups can be granted the status of national minority, but not a status of one of the constitutive nations. As Štiks (2010) argues, the new citizenship legislation, enacted in 1991, differentiated between the included (former citizens of Socialist Republic of Croatia), excluded (former residents of Socialist Republic of Croatia, who did not have Croatian citizenship and were not of Croat ethnicity) and invited categories of potential citizens (all ethnic Croats, regardless of their citizenship or residency).  Supported by Serbian nationalist elites from Belgrade, and opposing the newly proclaimed Croatian independence from Yugoslavia, a part of the Croatian Serb population rebelled against the Croatian state, and established a self-proclaimed republic of Serbian Krajina. Following such events, Croatian path towards a full statehood developed through the violent conflict during the 1990s. However, by the end of the decade Croatia managed to accomplish most of its state building goals: it managed to gain international recognition, in 1995 it launched a military campaign with which it took control over the most of the rebelled territories, by the end of 1998 the remaining territories under the Serbian control peacefully integrated to Croatia and following the established operative control over its internationally recognized borders it further consolidated membership criteria to its polity.

With the end of the 1990s, once the establishment of stable statehood became accomplished goal, Croatia moved toward EU accession as a new national priority. The negative consequences of its citizenship regime, which were the outcome of the turbulent political processes of the previous decade, slowly began to be resolved, partially as the consequence of the changes in Croatian political landscape, but also as the outcome of the external pressures during the EU accession negotiation process. For the most of the Serb refugees that left the country during the 1990s, access to Croatian citizenship was eased and Croatian authorities got actively engaged in the resolving the obstacles for their safe return. In addition, new minority legislation was enacted which nominally granted a high scale of cultural rights to ethnic minorities. Finally, with the number of successful pride parades, and gradual increase of affirmative media attention towards gay population, it seemed that Croatia was rapidly developing into a more inclusive and tolerant society. Finally, on 1st July 2013, Croatia became 28th EU member state.

So, what are the experiences of the Croatian citizenship landscape following the first eight months of its membership in EU? In contrast to the trend of widening the scope of public visibility and granting the rights of the various categories of minority citizens, clearly evident in the late 2000s, there is a general agreement among academics, politicians and journalists that after the accession Croatia witnessed a process which was by media often marked as „conservative revolution“.

On 1st December, following the public campaign launched by the conservative organization U ime obitelji (In the name of the family), Croatia had its third national referendum since independence (the first was the referendum on Croatian independence held in May 1991 and the second on Croatian accession to EU in January 2012.). Even though Croatian legislation has a very high threshold for citizens’ signatures needed for referendum to be held (namely, ten per cent of all registered voters in Croatia need to sign the petition in order to make a holding of referendum on particular issue mandatory) making it very difficult to held a referendum not initiated by the Croatian institutions, U ime obitelji did not have any difficulties to attract much higher citizen support for its cause than it was demanded by law.

Furthermore, even though Croatia is experiencing a deep economic crisis, this cause was not on one of the alarming issues related to Croatian economic or social policy. Instead, it demanded a constitutional definition of marriage as a life-long union between man and woman, even though similar definition of marriage already existed in Croatian Family Law. These requests were made in the eve of the parliamentary discussions on the bill which, among other issues, had to regulate same sex partnerships, and for the most parts of the Croatian gay and queer community and left-centre intelectuals the demand for referendum was recognized as a blatant attack on the principles of equality of citizens regardless of their membership to any identity category. Even though the referendum turn-out was very low (37,9 per cent), U ime obitelji managed to win a high support for their cause (65,87 per cent )and introduce a novel definition of marriage to Croatian constitution.

On the other hand, generous provisions of the Croatian constitutional law on national minorities, which granted a right of equal official use of minority language and script for minorities which constituted at least one third of total population at the particular unit of local self-government, were aggressively contested by right wing political parties and organizations of Homeland war veterans as soon as the preconditions for its implementation were met in practice.

According to the last census held in 2011, Serb minority reached that proportion in population in town Vukovar. However, Vukovar hold a specific place in Croatian recent history and political memory. It may be argued that it is one of the pillars of the Croatian symbolic politics. Being violently destructed by the siege of Serbian paramilitary troops and Yugoslav national army in 1991, and ethnically cleansed from non-Serb population following its fall, in Croatian collective memory it is a symbol of victory and heroic struggle. However, it is also often utilized in public as a device for imposing a collective guilt for war on all members of Serb minority in Croatia today. Hence, the possible introduction of Serb language and Cyrillic alphabet on the same foot with Croatian language in the official posts, resulted in riot and another campaign for referendum in Croatia. This time, the initiators of anti-Cyrillic alphabet in official posts in Croatia demand a referendum according to which citizens will be able to decide whether they want a modifications to Croatian law on national minorities, according to which a threshold to exercise minority language as an official language of the local unit of self-government will be reserved only for those minorities which form at least a half of total population of such unit.

Considering the named issues that have been raised in Croatian public lately, following the full membership to EU, it may be concluded that while the status dimension of Croatian citizenship remains uncontested (in Joppke’s (2007) terms the rules and procedures for acquisition of citizenship) the rights dimension and identity associated to such status and rights remains a contested field of symbolical struggle in Croatian political arena. How it will evolve with the longer experience as a full EU member, remains to be seen.


Viktor Koska


Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb




Hayden, R. 1992. ‘Constitutional nationalism in the formerly Yugoslav Republics’. Slavic review, 51: 654-673

Joppke, Christian, 2007: Transformation of citizenship: status, rights, identity. Citizenship studies, 11 (1), 37–48.

Koska, V., 2011. The evolution of the Croatian citizenship regime: from independence to EU integration. CITSEE Working Paper 2011/15. Edinburgh: School of Law, University of Edinburgh.

Ragazzi F., Štiks I. & Koska V., 2013. Country Report: Croatia. EUDO Citizenship Observatory. Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. European University Institute.

Štiks, I., 2010 The citizenship conundrum in post-communist Europe: The instructive case of Croatia. Europe-Asia studies, 62 (10), 1639–1660.


[1] For the more detailed overview of the development of the Croatian citizenship regime and existing Croatian citizenship legislation see: Koska (2011), Ragazzi, Štiks and Koska (2013)