All citizens are (not) the same in Croatia

A biometric Croatian passport. [CROPIX]

Imagine having different citizenship from your entire family, just because a bureaucrat at the civil registry made an error. Imagine trying to find a solution for decades, only to run into bureaucratic obstacles that send you back to the start every time.

This is the reality for Milan Škorić and almost 5,000 people whose citizenship was wrongly registered in the former Yugoslavia.

Human error

His parents, both Croatian citizens, moved from Croatia to Serbia in the 1970s, when both were part of Yugoslavia, and started a family there. At the time, the Yugoslav motto of ‘brotherhood and unity’ was still very palpable, and ethnic tensions were successfully suppressed.

Milan was born in 1983. His parents had Croatian citizenship and, according to Article 4 of the Citizenship Act valid at the time of Milan’s birth, ‘the child whose parents are Croatian citizens gains republican citizenship of Croatia’. Yet, he was registered as a Serbian citizen.

Milan’s sister, born in 1987 into the same family in the same city, and registered at the very same civil registry, got Croatian citizenship based on the same law.

The error was reported right away but no one was keen to correct it because citizens of socialist republics had equal rights everywhere in Yugoslavia, during the ‘brotherhood and unity” era.

Everything changed in 1990s

But in the wake of Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse, citizenship became much more important as republics became independent countries and having the “wrong citizenship” was frowned upon.

Having lost numerous legal battles in Croatia, the Škorić family decided to file a complaint against Croatia at the European Court of Human Rights in December 2018.

They cited discrimination and violation of their private and family life because of discrimination on the basis of citizenship.

In the 1990s, Milan survived a very serious car accident, which left him partially disabled. Due to the serious physical and mental injuries, he became entirely dependent on his widowed mother Vera.

Because her son was a “foreigner’, he could not stay in Croatia longer than three months at a time, which meant leaving the country and returning.

In 2018, the final verdict from the Croatian Constitutional Court cited “not fulfilling legal requirements of having the continuity of Croatian citizenship according to the law that was enforced on 8 October 1991 [when Croatia officially became independent]”, as the grounds for rejecting Škorić’s citizenship ‘request.

But children of Serbian, Bosnian or Macedonian families that were born in Croatia and were wrongly registered as Croatian citizens, were treated differently. Such citizens were by default granted the Croatian citizenship after its independence in 1991 and were able to get all the necessary documents.

However, in the 2000s, the government informed these citizens that their citizenship had been de facto revoked. Even though there is no official data for how many citizens in Croatia suffered that practice, four cases got to the Constitutional Court, citing a violation of Article 9 of the Croatian Constitution, which states that ‘citizenship cannot be revoked’.

At the same time, Article 16 continues to set more favourable conditions for ‘members of the Croatian people’  who don’t reside in Croatia to acquire citizenship. Ethnic Croats only have to meet five conditions for becoming citizens, including attachment to the legal system and ethnic tradition of Croatia.

Thus not only do ethnic Croats benefit from simplified procedures to obtain citizenship, but they may also retain any other citizenship.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) of the Council of Europe, reported in 2012 on these discriminatory provisions of the Croatian Citizenship Act.

“ECRI considers this a clear case of unequal treatment based on ethnic origin and regrets that the authorities did not take the opportunity to change these discriminatory provisions during the recent amendments,” says the ECRI report on Croatia.

The report refers to the fact that ethnic Croats living abroad can get citizenship only by successfully proving that their ancestor had migrated from Croatia. They do not have to speak the language, live in the country or know anything about Croatian culture. Meanwhile, ethnic Serbs from Croatia have to meet a number of criteria to qualify for citizenship.

Furthermore, the current amendments to the Croatian Citizenship Act, now being discussed at the Croatian Parliament, further facilitate the acquisition of citizenship for ethnic Croats living abroad.

The Croatian ombudsman’s office warned in its 2018 report that Croatian citizenship cannot be obtained for those who were wrongly registered but can be unilaterally revoked.

“We believe that such practice demonstrates legal injustice because the error of civil registry is not being treated equally for the same cases. The principle of legal continuity ought to be promoted in such cases, meaning that citizenship cannot be given unequally while favouring one person over another,” the report said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]

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