The Marketplace of Citizenships

This seems to be a necessary consequence of modernization: citizens have turned into customers of public services, feeling entitled to change the “shop” and vote with their feet if not satisfied.

“Unfortunately, the investor has to travel to Bulgaria, as Bulgarian banks are unwilling to open bank accounts for non-EU citizens remotely” explains a private cabinet, offering legal services to acquire Bulgarian citizenship. The keyword seems to be “unfortunately”; it reveals what a business person expects from its future homeland, but also what makes countries competitive on the global market.

A number of sites help you compare the offers for “golden visas” and citizenship by investment. The lanes of the competition are similar. First, they present the power and prestige of the receiving country, the economic opportunities it offers, as well as the strength of its passport, i. e. the number of states you can visit without a visa (e.g. Bulgaria—169, Spain 189). Special attention is given to the scenery of tourist countries, illustrated by gorgeous views of the sea, fairy-tale castles and then some handy advertisements of real estate you can buy right away to enter the category of “investor”.

The second term of comparison is more matter-of-fact. Citizenships are listed with respect to how much they will cost you. As one might expect, the minimum amount of money required to be admitted into the national community—first as a resident, then a national—varies enormously. Thus Austria asks you to invest at least 2 million euros, whereas citizenship of Moldova is offered “from 100,000”. Powerful countries such as Germany or France rely on higher demand and do not promise automatic acceptance in consideration of a specific sum of money. They will let you in with a residence permit, provided he/she invests in an innovative business, not just government bonds, creates a given number of jobs, has particular talents, etc.

Acquiring citizenship looks like a simple transaction

At the periphery of the rich industrial world, acquiring citizenship begins to look like a much simpler financial transaction. As in any supermarket, deals are proposed that give you access to fast tracks; the opportunity of getting rid of your investment quickly in bonds or property is presented as another advantage. Take Bulgaria: fast track citizenship can be acquired in just one and a half years, you need to buy government bonds for half a million euros, then double the investment the second year. By the end of year five, you may sell everything and carry out business or whatever you like in any country of the European Union.

Take Bulgaria: fast track citizenship can be acquired in just one and a half years, you need to buy government bonds for half a million euros, then double the investment the second year.

It is important to know that applicants usually do not perceive interest for the period of time their money stays in the country’s bank, which can be seen as a sort of hidden payment. Some places perceive various taxes, while others require “donations”—a word that curiously combines a presumably moral act with a cynical purchase.

Finally, the competition to attract wealthy would-be compatriots implies a number of facilitation, presented as a rule in a negative form: no need to renounce your previous citizenship, no language exam, no medical test, etc. The utmost offer is exempting the applicant from physical presence. The Netherlands, for example, asks you to turn up at least once a year in order to maintain your residence permit, Cyprus invites you to visit the country once every two years, Dominica, Hungary and many others do not require a physical presence at all. If the stock exchange dematerialized the goods that are being traded, citizenship-by-investment makes a pure simulacrum out of national belonging.

Competition to attract wealthy would-be compatriots implies a number of facilitation, presented as a rule in a negative form: no need to renounce your previous citizenship, no language exam, no medical test, etc.

Dangerous side-effects

All this might sound scandalous for an old-fashioned partisan of the nation-state. There has been, however, serious criticism of such citizenship for sale in the European Commission since the second half of 2018. It does not question the principle as such but has expressed worries over its dangerous side-effects, namely the possibility of letting criminal people or dirty money into the EU. The European Commissioner for Justice, Věra Jourová, stated: “It is a big concern when a Russian citizen, who has worked his whole life in middle or senior management… suddenly has the money to buy citizenship in Malta”.¹ It is the Russian threat that explains why criticism was particularly focused on countries such as Bulgaria, Cyprus and Latvia that are more particularly in the focus of Moscow’s interests. Nevertheless, no one challenged their sovereign right to sell their citizenship: the only problem seemed to be the insufficient security checks on the Russian applicants.

Bulgaria was hit by another embarrassment at the same time: it was determined that the citizenship was massively sold to presumed people of Bulgarian “self-consciousness”, as they call it. This means that practically all citizens of Northern Macedonia had the right to apply because according to the national doctrine the inhabitants of this country are part of the Bulgarian nation. The same was valid for Bulgarian ethnic minorities in Albania, Ukraine, Serbia and elsewhere. It was determined that a passport could cost about 5 thousand euros, perceived by corrupt officials, most of whom turned out to be linked to one of the nationalist parties. There are no strict criteria to measure “self-consciousness”, thus the business expanded quickly with over 100,000 naturalizations within a couple of years. The new Bulgarians rarely stay in their newly found fatherland, but quickly leave for Western Europe, where the acquired citizenship allows them to work without a work visa. It is estimated that over 95% are gone with no intention to return.

Global marketplace of belongings

Taking bribes is, of course, a criminal offense. But from a political point of view granting citizenship to nationals living abroad is not something new. Take the German Russians or the Pontic Greeks, allowed to come back to their respective primordial homelands after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And once you become a national, no one can stop you from emigrating.

Taking bribes is, of course, a criminal offense. But from a political point of view granting citizenship to nationals living abroad is not something new.

The two presented scandals are somewhat different, however, as in the first, citizenship is sold by public institutions for economic reasons, while in the second, by corrupt private operators, hiding behind an ethno-nationalist ideology. The principle as such seems generally accepted: belonging to places and communities has become a kind of merchandise. And it is a characteristic of merchandise to change hands.

What is new is the very idea that national belonging is something changeable. Article 15 of the Universal declaration of 1948 presents it as a human right: “no one shall be… denied the right to change his nationality.” If you have the right to choose a new thing, why not be able to buy it. And if there are people buying, there will also be those who sell.

If you are no longer obliged to work in the field of your lord and are allowed to make rational choices about better job opportunities, it seems only logical to change the country you live in.

Premodern communities demand exclusive loyalty to one’s group, except for temporary engagements of the military. Being assimilated into another religious or political community used to imply deep transformations of personality that could hardly be seen as a choice of free individuals. Dual citizenship emerged during the late nineteenth century in America, a country of European settlers. It began to be gradually accepted by a growing number of countries only after the catastrophe of Nazism, a regime that pushed the principle of exclusive belonging to the extreme. The final blow came with the fall of the Communist block which kept its nationals inside countries by force. The world entered a new phase, where the promise of the declaration of human rights seems to have been fulfilled: everyone is entitled to leave his/her polity and chose another one at will. Globalization brought about the global marketplace of belongings.

A consequence of modernization?

This seems to be a necessary consequence of modernization. If you are no longer obliged to work in the field of your lord and are allowed to make rational choices about better job opportunities, it seems only logical to change the country you live, as this is by far the most important factor that will determine your salary, your rights and even your lifespan. In addition, the economy has long ago outgrown the political sphere: entrepreneurs tend to operate worldwide and golden visas or citizenship by investment are an essential instrument for them to operate in distant lands that have different legislations and represent more risk. (Pseudo) belonging to a national community is thus as rationally calculated as any other expenditure within the balance sheet of the enterprise. This is just as the average man calculates where it would be most profitable to emigrate, like a refugee, who investigates before taking the boat where refugees are treated best.

Could you really be loyal to a national community that you have cynically chosen? Will you be ready to give your life defending a country, the citizenship of which you have bought? Such questions that used to be asked throughout the nineteenth century seem out of place today. Moral engagement towards your polity sounds like shallow extreme-right rhetoric.

Citizens as customers of public services

It was the neoliberal turn brought about by Margaret Thatcher that changed the relationship between the individual and the polity: it was the latter that was to serve the former, not the other way round, as it has been for thousands of years. In more practical terms, Thatcherism inspired the 1980s ideology of “New Public Management” that consists of running governments like businesses. Citizens are viewed as customers, attended to by public managers; the quasi-market of services is supposed to be monitored by various forms of accountability and feedback, and as to Thatcher herself, she saw herself as “a policy entrepreneur”.

Thatcherism inspired the 1980s ideology of “New Public Management” that consists of running governments like businesses. Citizens are viewed as customers, attended to by public managers.

This approach gradually spread all over the world. Citizens have turned into customers of public services, feeling entitled to change the “shop” and vote with their feet if not satisfied. The darker side of such moral liberation from the community can be seen in the marvellous film of Ken Loach “I, Daniel Blake” (2016). The protagonist moves within a dehumanized New-Management-like world, where he expects to have rights as a citizen, whereas the bureaucrats check whether he qualifies for specific services.

In fact, the alienation of customer-citizen and government-manager is even deeper on the global marketplace of national belongings. The moral link between the individuals and the political community which is supposed to accept them is replaced by formalized operations, forms, documents and payments. The Daniel Blake, applying for citizenship will wait in vain for some human relation with the receiving country, a task to fulfil in proving he is useful, a chance to be accepted by the local community. As a result, he becomes cynical and fakes his CV, concludes a sham marriage and bribes officials.

The moral link between the individuals and the political community which is supposed to accept them is replaced by formalized operations, forms, documents and payments.

As to the business world, cynicism is even greater. Citizenship is a service, you pay for it without even having to “visit” your new homeland. As a Bulgarian right-wing politician said, the best thing would be if the state became an app in your telephone, so that you could practice your citizenship without leaving your bed. In a world where states have become digital services, we shall finally have the ideal market of citizenships and belonging to communities will be bought and sold at the speed of light with no need to leave your office. Should we be astonished by the success of populists worldwide, who successfully exploit the fears which are crumbling communities?


  1. EU prepares crackdown on ‘citizenships for sale’ (2018, August 12). Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/9a6eb914-9e23-11e8-85da-eeb7a9ce36e4.

Ivaylo Ditchev

Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University, Bulgaria. He has been teaching abroad, mainly in France and the USA. He is also an editor of the journal for cultural studies Seminar BG.

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