Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

BALKANS: Visas Eased, Except in Muslim Areas

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Jul 22 2009 (IPS) - Almost two decades after the break-up of former Yugoslavia, people from some of the new states that emerged have been granted visa-free travel to the European Union (EU) from the beginning of next year.

This week the European Commission (EC), the bloc’s executive arm, decided to grant visa-free travel to some 10 million people from Serbia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FRYM) and Montenegro.

Serbian President Boris Tadic said the move was “of extraordinary importance to our citizens, as the visa policy was the last sanction against them as a consequence of the wrong policies in the 1990s.”

This was a reference to late president Slobodan Milosevic, whose refusal to adopt a peace plan for Croatia in 1991 at the start of Yugoslavia’s bloody break-up led to strict visa regimes for citizens from the region.

Rump Yugoslavia at the time consisted of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Slovenia and Croatia were already independent nations of what used to be a federation of six republics in former Yugoslavia. As victims of war launched by Serbia, they were exempt from the visa regime.

Before 1991, former Yugoslavs enjoyed visa-free travel since the mid-1960s, unlike the nations of what used to be communist Eastern Europe. Generations of Serbs grew up travelling freely abroad, but the young now are almost completely unaware of the benefit.

“It was ok to go to Italy for a weekend when I was young,” Bogdan Stevovic (54), a Belgrade teacher, told IPS. “However, my 19-year-old son does not know what it looks like. For a week’s holiday in Greece he had to queue the whole night in front of the Greek embassy just to submit his visa request in the morning.”

Recent research by the Serbian government shows that some 70 percent of young people have never crossed the country’s border, despite the fact that a passport is easily obtainable.

“Many spoke of lack of money as the reason,” sociologist Stjepan Gredelj told IPS. “But more than half said it was the degrading process (of obtaining a visa) that completely discouraged them.”

But if an almost loud sigh of relief was heard in Serbia after the EC decision, reactions in neighbouring Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo were coloured with anger.

The three were omitted from the EC list for visa-free travel. “These countries have not yet fulfilled the conditions,” the EC said in its statement. That meant they had not introduced biometric passports, secured their borders or engaged in a fight against organised crime. Visa-free travel for them could be re-examined by mid-2010, the EC statement said.

There was fierce reaction in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the EC move was viewed as a political message primarily for Bosniak Muslims, who are the largest ethnic group, that suffered the biggest losses in the 1992-95 war, mostly at the hands of Bosnian Serbs.

“It’s further discrimination against us Bosniaks,” Sarajevo resident Mirsad Juzbasic told IPS on the phone. “It’s a shame after what happened here during the war. We’ll remain in a kind of a ghetto.”

It’s different for Bosnian Croats and Serbs. Both are able to obtain passports from their ethnic mother countries, meaning they can hold dual Bosnian and Croat, or Bosnian and Serb citizenship.

Many Bosnian Croats opted for Croatian passports as far back as the mid- 1990s because Croatia was exempt from the visa introduction in 1991.

Bosnian Serbs have realised now that it’s easy for them to obtain Serbian passports. “The only problem is we have to wait for Serbian citizenship for 15 months,” Jelena Stojkovic (24) told IPS on phone from Banja Luka, capital of Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serb entity within Bosnia. “But it will be good for us. We can see what Europe looks like now.”

Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who declared independence in what Serbia officially considers its southern province in February 2008, are regarded by Serbia as its citizens, but Serbia is unable to provide biometric passports because it has no jurisdiction over the province – even if the ethnic Albanians would want to travel on a Serbian passport.

The passports issued by Kosovan authorities are recognised by 60 nations that recognise Kosovo as independent.

Political commentator Agron Bajrami wrote in the Pristina daily Koha Ditore that liberalisation of the visa regime for Serbs represents “rehabilitation of evil”, and on the other hand a “ghetto” for Muslims because Albania and Kosovo are almost exclusively populated by Muslims.

Muslims are about 48 percent of the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina – and the affected part.

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