New Balkan visa rules: Serbia in, Albania still out

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.

10 thoughts on “New Balkan visa rules: Serbia in, Albania still out

  1. “That said, this has some people muttering that the EU is discriminating against Muslims.”

    To put it moderately. It is not muttering, it is well know fact and reality, driven by official politics!

    “Bosnia is a badly misgoverned little country,”

    To put it moderately.

    “As a self-proclaimed independent state”

    Far from it. It is an imperial creation.

  2. Doug,

    Just a note to say that the new visa regime is valid for Schengen area only. Thus, London (as well Dublin, Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria and Liechtenstein) are out of reach for visa-free travel. However, other non-EU countries such as Iceland, Norway and (most importantly) Switzerland are included. I just wanted to point this out as you mentioned London in your post.

    The Kosovar government welcomed the exclusion of all Kosovar citizens from the new rules — because they think that anything that treats Kosova differently to Serbia strengthens their independence.

    I think this new visa regime might drive more Serbs out of Kosova than the post-war attacks — although older people will stay put. I can see most young people leaving places like Gracanica and not returning.

    Finally, I recall many of my Baltic friends telling me how they hated the visa-free travel to Europe prior to joining the EU. Yes, you could travel to Heathrow airport visa-free, however, the checks at the airport were just as thorough as those at the embassy, if not worst. At least at the embassy you get the second chance to take back additional documents if needed — no such luxuries in front of the immigration officer at the airport. What I’m trying to say is that you will still need to produce a lot of papers and documents (where you are going, how long you are staying, who is paying and how, return ticket to ‘country of origin’ and so on). Only this time you don’t have to queue outside the embassy. I can only imagine what sort of checks the Swiss will conduct for the ex-YU ‘tourists’!
    Expect the complaints to continue, only this time not about embassies but about the treatments by immigration officers.

    Bon voyage!

  3. For the last 20 years, it’s kinda sucked to be a Serb.

    For a lot of that time, it wasn’t much fun to be a non-Serb living anywhere near a Serb either…

  4. Fidel, thanks for the comment!

    1) You’re right — Schengen only. My bad.

    2) This is a good example of how the independence issue is warping thinking. The Kosovar government should be determined to get their people in ASAP, not smiling and saying “see, proves we’re not Serbia!”

    3) Don’t get your hopes up. Remember, the visa regime is for visits only. And I suspect the Serbian government will be very, very understanding of Kosovar Serbs who want to have two addresses.

    4) Excellent point!

    Doug M.

  5. Doug,

    Although I am trying to see this latest development as good for the region I still fail to be excited.

    1) I believe the visa regimes with the whole region have outlived their usefulness (of course here it is important to keep in mind the assumption that the EU is serious about integrating the whole region). The experience of the past 20 years shows that visa regimes have not prevented criminal elements from penetrating the EU, have not discouraged the young and not-so-young unemployed from crossing seas and mountains in search of better life. Why would this work now?

    2) Visa regimes contribute to creating their own sort of criminality from the network of visa counterfeiters to the corruption of local officials and foreign embassies in issuing visas.

    3) Visa regimes prevent what really matters for integration of these countries. That is, social, cultural, economic and business relationships with the EU. Worse, it can lead to further tensions between countries involved as for instance Macedonia and Montenegro could apply stricter rules to Albanian and Bosnian citizens now and on.

    4) Overall I am left with the feeling of a quasi-failed regional project on the part of the EU. There seems to be a level of exasperation of the EU with the political elites of Albania and Bosnia (Kosovo is a special case here) and the visa regimes are among the few means, and probably the strongest, in pressuring these elites. This could explain the lack of political willingness of making any favors to those countries.

  6. This visa thing for the Balkanian countries of Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia is stupid. It doesn’t matter if it has anything to do with religion or not, because everyone knows that albanian muslims are muslims only by origin, but 90% of Albanians have never gone to a mosque, never read the Kuran, never cared for religion. They say “I’m a muslim” only because their surname sounds like a muslim name.

    However, what I mean is that this visa thing doesn’t do any good to EU countries themselves.

    Until today, every Balkanian that has wanted to go in a Western European country, has managed to do so, with or without a visa.

    If you stop these people from visiting EU countries, they think that EU countries are some kind of promised land or something, where you can’t go without some sacrifices, but abundance awaits you there.

    If they can visit and witness with their own eyes that that land is better, but not a promised land with abundance, after all, they might not even leave their homes. You must know that it’s not so easy leaving your home and go to be an immigrant, the lowest scale of a richer society.
    Most of emigrants start their journey with these thoughts, the thoughts of a promised land with abundance. And when they arrive, they wish they never came to that country. But it’s too late to turn back home, because they have invested for this trip a very big amount of money, they have taken a very big decision with their families, and their families wait big results from them.

    And since they have gone illegally, they can do only illegal jobs… and this is convenient for EU employers who want to save in insurance and other employer taxes. But they pay these emigrants only for food and rent, nothing more.

    The other option that remains, is the other illegal markets of work for them, which have abundance of money… the promised land… like prostitution and drug dealing, markets that EU countries offer in abundance…
    Honest Balkanians might not do that, but they can’t even turn back home that fast. So they prefer taking their families there, illegally. At least they will see with their eyes why they don’t earn any big deal of money.

    What I mean is that with these visas, EU will have more immigrants.

    Let’s take Albania, for example. Albania has 3.5 million people.
    Italy has 500.000 Albanian emigrants.
    Greece almost 500.000 too.
    An other 500 is spread around the world, Britain, France, Scandinavian Countries, North America.

    So, one third of the country is already there. Who can go any more?

    This visa thing stops only the honest Balkanians from visiting EU countries just as tourists, or whatever, the Albanians who do not will to undertake illegal actions and go there.
    All people that do not have a problem with illegal travel in EU have always managed to go there, as long as EU has a lot of its own corrupted people who make this possible.

    The ones “stuck”, as the writer says, are the ones who do not need to go and the ones who are satisfied with their life in their own country.

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  8. This measure is good and bad at the same time. It will offer the possibility of good, trustfully people to travel to countries worth seeing such as Austria, Czech Republic, Italy, France and so on. A very important factor that made this possible is that the EU countries are in some lack of tourists, so Serbians are welcomed to spend their money here. The negative side is that the visa exempt will also help spread illegal work in the EU states and, maybe worst of all, it will help spread criminality, human trafficking and prostitution.

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  10. @PrishtinaHottieee The reason why USA is spunortipg you is strickly political,your people have nothing in common with americans and thats it thats what you alboz fail to realize.A large war between muslims and christians is ineviteble and when that happens USA interest in the balkans will cease to exist.In the meantime i and other serbs,slavs will sitt back,relax and continue to spread our anti albanian hatred.Now go and continue to talk your and spread your bullshit lies,you scum.

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