Balkans: Some gain right to visa-free EU travel

GRAZ, Austria — As of today, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbians do not need visas to travel to the European Union, just their passports.

But changing the rules for these three former Yugoslav countries has undermined national unity in Bosnia and made it even harder for people with Kosovo passports to travel.

Yugoslavia's non-aligned status in its communist days meant its citizens were free to travel in both eastern and western Europe. Travel visa restrictions were only introduced for Yugoslav passport holders in 1991, when Croatia's moves towards independence sparked a war. Those who switched to the new Croatian passport have never needed a visa to travel to the rest of Europe. Slovenians have also been able to travel visa-free since their relatively bloodless independence.

Bosnians able to demonstrate enough Croat heritage to be issued a Croatian passport have been able sidestep the visa issue all along, but now those able to obtain Serbian passports will have the same privilege. This leaves Bosnia's largest ethnic group, the Muslims, alone in Bosnia with no way to obtain visa-free travel in the EU.

"The Muslims suffered the most during the war and now they are suffering the most again," said Zoran Podorovic, the Bosnian owner of the Cafe Royal in Graz, Austria's second-largest city. But what of the idea that it might inspire greater reform efforts by the Bosnian government? "They are not punishing the politicians they are punishing the people," chipped in Duscko Ivicevic, one of the patrons at the bar.

For former-Yugoslav's driven abroad by the conflicts in the 1990s whose relatives did not have Croatian passports, the visa restriction has meant visits have been fewer and further between. Many are unwilling or unable to go through the potentially expensive, time consuming and often fruitless visa application process.

"It is OK for people who are well-educated, but not good for those who are not," said Mirjana Podorovic, Zoran's wife. "People who want to come and visit us from Bosnia find it difficult." Consulates will often ask for large amounts of personal information, like bank and health insurance statements and a hotel booking, before issuing a visa. For many, the €35 ($50) fee is a lot to risk.

"The consulates make it very clear that they want to make sure you are going to go back," said Vedran Dizdarevic, a 32-year-old post-graduate student now living in Graz who fled Bosnia for Germany when conflict spread in 1992. "My parents, who have only Bosnian passports, feel ashamed at being treated like second-class citizens and many of my friends don't visit at all."

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.