Swearing loyalty: Should new citizens pledge allegiance in a naturalisation oath?

Mandatory hypocrisy: oaths in extraterritorial naturalisations

Jelena Džankić (European University Institute)

Danas, kada postajem pionir,
dajem časnu pionirsku riječ
da ću marljivo učiti i raditi,
poštovati roditelje i starije,
i biti vjeran i iskren drug,
koji drži datu riječ,
da ću voljeti našu domovinu,
samoupravnu Socijalističku Federativnu

Republiku Jugoslaviju,
da ću razvijati bratstvo i jedinstvo
i ideje za koje se borio drug Tito,
da ću cijeniti sve ljude svijeta koji žele

slobodu i mir!
Today, as I become a pioneer,
I give my honourable pioneer word
that I will study and work diligently,
respect my parents and elders,
be a loyal and honest friend,
who holds their word,
that I will love our homeland,
the self-governing Socialist Federal
Republic of Yugoslavia,
that I will develop brotherhood and unity
and the ideas Comrade Tito fought for,
that I will appreciate all the people of the
world seeking freedom and peace!

This was my very first oath. I took it together with thousands of other first-graders, on 29 November 1988, in a ceremony celebrating the creation of a state that would disappear two years later. Oaths were quite common during communism, as symbolic acts marking one’s entry into a community of pioneers, or – for those subject to military duty – of soldiers. They were intended to simultaneously create a moment of social ‘togetherness’ that would erase the otherwise existing ethnic, religious, or social boundaries, and ensure loyalty to the state. And in this, their logic was not that much different from naturalisation oaths, which Patti Lenard defends in her kick-off. Remembering the joy of my first oath that at the time commemorated my ‘becoming a pioneer’, I fully agree with Lenard that taking an oath might be a meaningful moment for immigrants who have lived in foreign countries for years, and for whom it might symbolize a ‘rite of passage’. Even so, as Christine Hobden, Rainer Bauböck, and Jaeeun Kim point out, context matters – and that is my first objection to having an oath as a part of the process of citizenship acquisition. In cases of extraterritorial or en masse naturalisations, which are frequent in the post-communist world, an oath is largely just a means to an end for both individuals and states. Furthermore, beyond the contestation of whether there should be an oath as a symbolic marker of becoming a citizen, there is also a deeper normative dilemma on whether such an oath – even as a ‘thin’ pledge to respect the country’s laws – should be mandatory. In this respect, Ashwini Vasanthakumar rightly highlights that pledging loyalty to one’s new state is “a small price to pay that shouldn’t be asked”. Yet, following Helen Irving’s argument, I would take a step further in objecting to mandatory oaths: they take away the “voluntary consent of new citizens to the authority of their new state of citizenship”. When oaths are a sine qua non for naturalisation, they are not a mechanism of integration of newcomers, but rather one among the conditions that act together as coercive mechanisms of selection.

Oath across the post-communist landscapes: beyond the ‘rite of passage’

Lenard defends states that adopt mandatory naturalisation oaths to the idea of improving effective immigrant integration, highlighting that citizenship ceremonies are one in the range of policies – including language, education, employment, and civics – with the ultimate objective of ensuring that immigrants, especially those from distinct cultural and religious backgrounds, may be seen as ‘loyal members’ of the nation they joined. In so doing, she ultimately connects oaths to the contemporary nation-building agendas that have emerged in response to increased immigration. While this argument might be appropriate for predominantly immigrant societies, such as Australia, Canada, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and a number of west-European Union Member States, this is far less so in the former communist world. The main reason for this difference is the distinct dynamic of state and nation building, in the wake of disintegration of multinational federations, and the different purpose that extraterritorial naturalisations serve.

Unlike in the Western immigrant societies, nation-building projects in much of Eastern Europe did not aim at responding to pressures of immigration (e.g., Kymlicka 2010, Mungiu Pippidi and Krastev 2004). Rather, they aimed at consolidating the newly established states, ensuring the viability of their sovereignty, or – in some cases – projecting broader political and geopolitical ambitions (Dzankic 2015; Stiks 2015; Pogonyi 2022). The resulting citizenship laws, including naturalisation policies, reflected the state’s need to determine its population, and define mechanisms for including or excluding the ‘new minorities’ created by shifting international borders. In some cases, extraterritorial naturalisation pathways have been developed to address historical wrongdoings, as a part of electoral strategies, or to make territorial or political claims in the neighbourhood. In my contribution to an earlier forum debate, I discussed the examples of Russia’s “passportisation” policy, and the Bulgarian extension of citizenship on the basis of ethnic kinship to citizens of the neighbouring North Macedonia. In a somewhat less controversial way, countries such as Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, and Romania also allow their ethnic kin from the neighbouring countries to become their nationals. Most of these countries, in fact, require their new citizens to swear an oath of allegiance. In a context of contested states, institutions, and borders – and citizens from formerly communist countries seeking additional mobility and life opportunities – a mandatory oath has a different purpose for states and meaning for individuals from what Lenard refers to.

For states, the oath is much closer to what Irving has described – a way of pre-committing to obedience, yet as a part of an instrumentalized (and possibly weaponized) citizenship policy. Those becoming Russian nationals swear that they “will protect the freedom and independence of the Russian Federation; and that [they] will be loyal to Russia and respect its culture, history and traditions”. Future citizens of Hungary solemnly swear loyalty to their new homeland and its Constitution and laws. If I were to become a new Hungarian citizen, I could pledge to “defend my country as far as my strength allows, and shall serve it according to the best of my abilities allow”, or take the full oath by adding “So help me God!” at the end of the statement. In a ceremony, citizens seeking naturalisation in Croatia swear “on their honor” that they will respect “the laws, culture and customs” of the country. One thing these oaths have in common is that they are by no means ‘thin’ pledges to respect the laws. Rather, they contain important ethnic, cultural, and even religious references, which may be instrumentalized by states that grant extraterritorial citizenship to make claims in view of protecting the ‘ethnic’, ‘cultural’, or ‘religious’ particularities of their citizens in neighbouring countries. 

For individuals seeking to naturalise in a country where they do not live, it is often just a piece of paper they have to sign, or a sentence they have to read out aloud, in order to receive a much sought-after second citizenship. Across Eastern Europe, a new passport – especially if tied to the benefits of European Union citizenship – is a compensatory mechanism for much of the limitations that individuals face as a result of having a citizenship that comes with visa limitations for travel, less opportunities for personal and professional growth, and political or economic instability (Harpaz 2019). In such a context, unlike in cases of immigrants celebrating an emotional moment of naturalisation in their new country, for recipients of extraterritorial citizenship, taking an oath of allegiance is quite contradictory to their true motivations for naturalising. Even as “a small price to pay”, to refer again to Vasanthakumar, a mandatory oath of allegiance forces new citizens to be hypocritical.

Mandatory oath as one of the coercive conditions for selection of future citizens

I largely agree with Daniel Sharp, David Owen, Zara Goldstone and Avia Pasternak that, while highly contested, the oath could potentially be acceptable, for as long as it remains optional. As such, it might even incentivize the new citizens to voluntarily engage in a ceremony marking their entry into a new community and thus develop a stronger sentiment of belonging. I have never had the personal experience of naturalising in another country, but the conferral of my doctoral degree foresaw a procedure that entailed kneeling down, with hands in prayer, and accepting the degree “in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti”. I would have found such a mandatory religious element very much oppressive, because my effort to get the degree (just as the effort of a future citizen to meet the naturalisation requirements) had nothing to do with the ‘higher power’. However, the fact that I could opt out from this religious element of the ceremony took away the element of coercion. Having the freedom to choose, I decided that the religious bit was a part of the experience, and that it would make me ‘feel’ as a part of the community of graduates from my University.

Beyond the sentiment of belonging, which indicates why the idea of a mandatory oath might be overbearing for the future citizens (and why an optional one would be a better way to truly integrate them, despite objections raised by Sharp and Bauböck that optional oaths might create classes of new citizens or arise suspicion against those opting out), I see two further objections to the obligation to pledge allegiance in view of naturalization.

First, Lenard notes that the ceremony and the oath mark the welcoming of new citizens to a community as “full and equal members”. Even with the thinnest form of a mandatory oath, new citizens are unequal to those who were citizens by birth. The latter have never been asked to formally swear allegiance, or to obey the laws and the constitution of the country of which they are citizens by birth. Hence there is an unspoken presumption of loyalty in the idea of birthright citizenship (in whichever way it was obtained). Subjecting those who seek to naturalise to formally declare loyalty – which is not a requirement for those who already are citizens – reinforces the dividing line between naturalised and non-naturalised citizens, and is not conducive to the idea of equal membership.

Second, in many cases, new citizens are required to attend a citizenship ceremony and take the oath before the naturalisation decision, or thereafter within a legally defined timeframe. In the first case, such as Croatia, the oath is taken ahead of the decision on naturalisation (exceptionally, on the day of decision), conditioning the admission on a declaration of allegiance. In the second case, such as Italy, an applicant who has received the decision on naturalisation has six months to take an oath of allegiance; otherwise, the Ministry of Interior issues a declaration of forfeiture for not taking the oath. This in practice means that the application needs to be re-submitted and re-considered, unless the applicant can prove that they failed to take the oath due to force majeure (e.g. pandemic, war, etc.). This temporal element between the decision on naturalisation and the mandatory oath that would make it effective, turns what Lenard sees as a ceremonial moment into the last hurdle a future citizen needs to jump over on the path to citizenship. In such cases, a mandatory oath is not a celebration of but rather a condition for becoming citizens.

In lieu of conclusion

Being a citizen or being a ‘good citizen’ has little to do with any pledge of allegiance. Allegiance, after all is not ephemeral, and can change for a lot of reasons, and that is fine. Taking a naturalisation oath can have different meanings and purposes for both individuals and states. In this sense, what might be desirable in immigrant societies in the ‘Global North’ may have different implications and connotations elsewhere. Having an oath as a part of the naturalisation process might be problematic, especially in cases of extraterritorial citizenship conferral. Having a mandatory oath, which decisively impacts on the naturalisation decision, takes away the ‘freedom’ from the new citizen to associate with the new community and forces them into doing so. And this is hardly conducive to developing belonging, affinity, and true connections with the new state and its citizens.