The curious case of Peter Handke’s Yugoslav passport

By Jelena Dzankic (EUI).

In November 2019, media revealed that the controversial Austrian writer Peter Handke who won the Nobel Prize for Literature held a passport of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). The FRY passport was a travel document issued between 1996 and 2006 to individuals possessing the status of nationality under the 1996 Citizenship Act of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In some cases, possessing two citizenships was tolerated under the FRY legislation (article 4): renunciation was required for incoming naturalisations (article 12), but not for expatriates (article 13) and the grant of citizenship for exceptional achievements (article 14). However, Austria has a strict single nationality policy, and the 1985 Federal Law on Austrian Nationality provides for an ex lege citizenship loss in case an individual voluntarily obtains a second nationality. Handke has admitted to possessing the Yugoslav passport, yet denied that he held the country’s citizenship. Was this possible under the Yugoslav laws at the time?

The citizenship puzzle

The issue of Handke’s citizenship emerged after media published a photo of his FRY passport from an online archive of the Austrian National Library. The image was credited to the personal collection of Hans Widrich, to whom Handke had given a number of personal items. In the top left corner, the passport features “Yugoslav” under the heading of “Nationality”, implying that Handke was at some point naturalised in the FRY.

While a number of commentators mentioned that Handke’s mother was a Carinthian Slovene, this could not possibly have been the grounds for his FRY nationality. The initial determination of citizenry in the 1996 FRY Citizenship Act included only those who, on 27 April 1992 – the date of establishment of the third Yugoslavia, had the republican citizenship of Serbia or Montenegro in the socialist Yugoslavia.[1] Even if Handke’s mother held the socialist Yugoslav citizenship prior to her departure in 1971, it would have been that of Yugoslavia and Slovenia. Hence his mother’s ancestry would not have made him eligible for the Yugoslav citizenship.

To obtain citizenship through ordinary naturalisation (FRY Citizenship Act, article 12), Handke would have had to have settled in the FRY and would have had to have renounced his Austrian citizenship, among other conditions. As he apparently did not meet either of these conditions, the only plausible legal grounds for his admission into the FRY citizenship would have been on the basis of “international or other interests of Yugoslavia, special services to Yugoslavia, or if the grant of nationality is required for scientific, economic, cultural, national or other reasons” (article 14(1), FRY Citizenship Act). In cases of this special conferral of nationality, under Yugoslav laws, individuals would not be required to renounce their other citizenship.

Throughout the 1990s, Handke had supported the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, and several of his books have been criticised for denying the genocide of the Bosnian Muslims. He had also been an ally of the then Yugoslav regime at the time of the NATO intervention, which took place between 24 March and 10 June 1999. As a result, it would not be surprising if the country’s authorities had awarded him citizenship. Yet it is unclear if that is what happened or not. The special conferral of nationality under article 14(1) would have been implemented by a decision of the Federal Government. Given that the date of issue of Handke’s passport is 15 June 1999, such a decision would have needed to have been adopted at one of the sessions of the Federal government that took place during the NATO intervention. Serbian media maintain that evidence of whether this naturalisation has taken place or not have been destroyed during the bombing. The archive of Yugoslavia, however, does not list these materials among the collections lost in the Spring of 1999.

The passport conundrum

The image of Handke’s passport does not feature a unique master citizen number (JMBG) assigned to every Yugoslav citizen. The 13-digit identification was first introduced in 1976 in the socialist Yugoslavia, and continued in its successor states after breakup. The 1997 Decision on keeping the records in the master registry of Yugoslav citizens and the certificate of Yugoslav citizenship, in force at the time when Handke presumably became a citizen of Yugoslavia, stipulates that each person registered in the master registry would have such an identification (article 21).  In line with the 1996 Law on travel documents for Yugoslav citizens, the unique master citizen number had to be entered in each passport (article 29).  Apart from raising the issue of whether Handke was a citizen or not, this raises the question of the validity of his passport, in particular if other information reported on the first page is viewed in the context of the applicable legislation.

Specifically, Peter Handke’s residence has been listed to be in the town of Chaville in France, while the travel document has been issued by the FRY Embassy in Vienna. Article 18(1) of the 1996 Law on travel documents for Yugoslav citizensstipulates that the FRY embassies abroad may issue passports to Yugoslav citizens residing uninterruptedly in the country where the embassy is located for at least three months. This raises the puzzle as to why Handke’s document has been issued by the country’s embassy in Austria rather than the one in France, as the law would have required, and further questions the validity of the document.

Final notes

While the fact that Peter Handke was in possession of a FRY travel document might indicate that he was indeed a naturalised Yugoslav citizen, evidence suggests that this may as well not be the case. Yet the fact that he did obtain a passport beyond legal procedures shortly after the end of the 1999 NATO intervention highlights many controversies surrounding the Yugoslav citizenship at the end of the 1990s. At that time, the status of hundreds of thousands of individuals who had sought refuge from the wars of Yugoslav disintegration was unresolved, placing them in a vulnerable position in a tense political environment. For all of those who had been deprived of their right to nationality in the aftermath of the Yugoslav break-up a passport had a real meaning – without it they could not access basic civic and political rights. For those who obtained it in questionable ways and on controversial grounds, it was just another booklet they could use to cross international borders.

[1] All Yugoslav citizens were simultaneously citizens of one of its constituent republics (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia).