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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.

Bosnians in Sarajevo protest against the European Union's visa policy for Bosnia, Feb. 13, 2007. (Danilo Krstanovic/Reuters)

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."