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Balkans: Some gain right to visa-free EU travel

But the lifting of restrictions on Serbians, Macedonians and Montenegrins leaves Bosnia and Kosovo behind.

In Kosovo, whose independence is still disputed by five EU member states, the change will make travel problems worse. Some had sidestepped the difficulty by obtaining passports from Serbia, which continues to claim sovereignty over Kosovo. But, as a condition of offering visa-free travel for Serbian passports, the EU stipulated that this loophole must be closed.

"All Serbian passports say where you live and so it is easy for people controlling entry to a country to recognize that you are a Kosovar rather than a Serbian," says Rexhep Bajrami, a 41-year-old librarian living in Pristina, Kosovo's capital. "It is positive that some people from the West Balkans don't have these visa restrictions, but it is a great shame that people are being treated differently. It would be good if it was put right in the next year or so."

"People from Kosovo who had a Serbian passport could at least travel to neighboring countries in the past," says Ulrike Lunacek, the European parliament's special rapporteur on Kosovo. "The new regulations mean that you might be able to travel to Montenegro or Macedonia, but none of the others. It will be detrimental to all those living in Kosovo, regardless of ethnicity, if they are left out of the visa liberalization process. Many of them were the victims and not the perpetrators in the wars."

"I know that the Kosovo authorities are working on a 'roadmap' to satisfy EU requirements. I hope that it can make progress on this in 2010 so that Kosovo can have visa liberalization in 2011," Lunacek said. "But there is always the status issue. If a country is not recognized by another, then it is difficult to travel with a passport from that country. I don't think there will be a lot of progress on that during the Spanish presidency of the European Council [which runs for six months from Jan. 1]." Spain opposes Kosovo's independence for fear that it might encourage separatists in Catalonia and the Basque country.

In Bosnia the way forward is a little clearer, according to Lunacek. "I hope Bosnia will meet the EU benchmarks required of them by summer and get visa liberalization. I also hope it will put some pressure on Bosnian politicians for constitutional reform because it is clear that the Dayton constitution signed in 1995 was a way to end the war but not to join the EU." But is constitutional reform going to be a precondition for membership? "No, not complete constitutional reform, but steps that make it clear there is a willingness to reform it."

For all her misgivings Lunacek, an Austrian Green party member, is helping to organize a visa-free party for people from the former Yugoslavia in Vienna.

"Finally, after almost 20 years, people will be able to travel again," she said. "I hope that particularly younger people can get to know other parts of Balkans and the other parts of Europe and learn about difference and diversity. And it is also important for them to learn that not everything in the EU is heaven."

Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect that Muslims, or Bosniaks, are the largest ethnic group in Bosnia.