And the Montenegrins and Macedonians. EU Commissioner Olli Rehn just announced his recommendation that these three countries be granted visa-free travel to the EU starting January 1, 2010.
While many European readers will blink and shrug, this is a huge, huge deal for the region. For the last 20 years, it’s kinda sucked to be a Serb. Back in Yugoslav times, you had one of the world’s best passports. East, west, developing world… the Yugoslav passport was welcomed for easy travel in almost every country on earth. But after 1991, suddenly your passport was a piece of junk: nobody welcomed Serbs, you were often viewed with suspicion, and you had to fill out elaborate forms (and wait for months) to get a visa to enter the EU. Even after the wars ended, Serbia was still kept firmly at arm’s length.
A whole generation of young Serbs have grown up grumpy about this: they didn’t do anything, so why are they being punished, while young Croats and Bulgarians can freely travel to London and Paris?
No more. Assuming the recommendations is approved — and it’s almost a rubber stamp — then six months from now, Serbs (and Montenegrins and Macedonians) will be able to jump on a plane and just fly to anywhere in the EU, no visa required.
Mind you, they won’t be able to get work permits. It’s just travel. But still: it’s going to make a huge difference.
This being the Balkans, there are of course some complications.
While Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia are in, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia are still out. At one level, this makes sense; these countries just aren’t ready. None of them have managed to get biometric passports up and running, never mind any of a dozen other requirements. There are also legitimate concerns about illegal immigration; Albania and Kosovo, in particular, are full of unemployed young people who’d jump at the slimmest chance to work in Hamburg or Manchester, legally or not.
That said, this has some people muttering that the EU is discriminating against Muslims. After all, Albania is mostly Muslim, Kosovo is almost all Muslim, and Bosnia — well, here it gets tricky. See Bosnia is only about 50% Muslim — but the Muslim Bosniaks are going to be hit particularly hard by the new visa system, because the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats can freely and easily get Serbian and Croatian passports. Both those countries allow, indeed encourage, double citizenship. But the Bosniaks? Are stuck.
The “anti-Muslim” thing is IMO idiotic. (It ignores, for instance, that about a third of the population of Macedonia is Muslim, while about a third of the population of Albania isn’t.) But it’s true that the Bosniaks are getting screwed here somewhat. On the other hand, Bosnia is a badly misgoverned little country, and the Bosniaks are not innocent in this regard. So while this is unfair, it’s not exactly a crime that cries to heaven for justice.
Meanwhile, another interesting wrinkle: what to do about Kosovo? As a self-proclaimed independent state, Kosovo issues its own passports. These are currently accepted by about 70 countries including most of the EU. “Accepted” meaning they won’t get you turned away at the airport. You still need a visa with them, though.
So: these Kosovar passports will still be accepted by most EU countries, but they will not be valid for visa-free travel in Europe. So far, so good. But — Serbia still issues passports to Kosovar Serbs quite freely, and also to Kosovar Albanians if they’re willing to go through some hassle. (Because having K-Albanians claim a Serb passport supports Serbia’s claim that Kosovo is really a province of Serbia. And K-Albanians sometimes apply because the passports are accepted in places where the Kosovo passport isn’t, and also because it lets them drive through Serbia with much less hassle. It’s the Balkans, it’s complicated.)
But the EU doesn’t want to grant visa-free travel to any residents of Kosovo, whether they’re ethnic Albanian, ethnic Serb, or whatever.
The proposed solution is to have Serbian passports for Kosovo residents issued only by a special office located in Belgrade. These passports will indicate that they are for Kosovo residents, and they won’t be acceptable for visa-free travel in the EU. (It’s not clear how this indication will be made. A big red “K”, perhaps?)
This leads to some interesting weirdness. If you’re an ethnic Serb living in Serbia? Come January 1, you’re good, no problem. Ethnic Serb living in Bosnia? You can’t travel to the EU on your Bosnian passport, but you can easily get a Serbian passport that will let you fly like a bird. Ethnic Serb living in Kosovo? Too bad — you can get a Serbian passport, but it will be the special “Red K” passport that will trigger alarms if you try to cross an EU border.
Ethnic Albanian living in Kosovo? Same drill — you’re stuck in Kosovo. Ethnic Albanian living next door in Macedonia, Montenegro, or Serbia itself? Congratulations! You’re free to go.
Obviously there is going to be some sudden border-crossing in the next few months. Albanians in Albania and Kosovo will suddenly discover roots in Macedonia; Serbs in Kosovo will suddenly develop addresses in Serbia proper. Nationalists on all sides will construe it as evidence that their side is right.
Hopefully it will all sort out in another year or two, and everyone will be able to go everywhere.