Visa-Free Balkans

A new law brings greater mobility to citizens of the former Yugoslavia, and stronger ties with the EU

News | Bojana Simeunovic | February 2010

After the two decades of warfare, high crime, sanctions and poor political and economical cooperation, the countries of the Western Balkans have come a step closer to the European fold. On Nov. 12, 2009 during a session of European Parliament, a proposal on visa liberalization for developing countries – whose citizens were not allowed to cross external borders without required visas – was adopted, and came into force on Dec. 19.

Unlike most communist states firmly positioned within the Soviet bloc, Tito’s Yugoslav Federal Republic remained non-aligned, resulting in the open borders that Yugoslavia enjoyed with non-communist Europe. Standard three-month tourist visas were granted without complication.  Unfortunately, after the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the violence that followed, Yugoslavs lost their free-travel privileges. With this new EU legislation, these lost travel rights are returned.

"Visa liberalization has a significant symbolic effect on the citizens of the Western Balkans," Serbian Ambassador Milan Bozinovic told The Vienna Review in January. "Ever since 1991, people of this area lived in complete isolation, judging American and EU policies as ones that were careless of their feelings." The legislation has led to an increased sense of inclusion for many in the Balkans, resulting in a rise in EU approval ratings.

However, while the visa liberalization has eased procedural inconvenience and provided more opportunities for tourists, workers and students, the system has put many EU nationals on heightened alert. Skeptics see a deep political divide between the Western Europe and the Balkans, a result of the huge economic and social gap between the two regions. In addition, they fear a further training of social welfare systems and a rise in crime, especially in wealthier EU states.

"Based on past experiences, we are naturally aware of the fact that visa-free travel will not only be used by families and students, but also facilitate the movement of persons with quite different goals and aims," Austrian Interior Minister Maria Fekter said.  Fekter also explained that the issue of property crime is another area of concern as well as a potential rise of illegal employment and the abuse of social benefits.

The legislative proposal was issued on Jan. 1, 2008 when the EU assigned roadmaps to Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia in order to meet the requirements of the Schengen White List Project, which is dedicated to the abolition of visa restrictions for Western Balkan citizens. The legislation includes free travel for all citizens who have biometric passports to countries in the Schengen area (excluding the United Kingdom and Ireland), to non-EU states Switzerland, Iceland and Norway, and to EU states Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus, which are not members of the "white list". Citizens are allowed 90 days abroad in Schengen countries during a six-month (180 day) period. These 90 days can be spent as one consecutive three-month stay or can be used to make multiple trips.

During the past two years, the European Commission had been monitoring the advances being made by the candidates. Towards the end of the revision period, it was concluded that Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia had met all the benchmarks required by their roadmaps. However, the Commission agreed that Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania have not yet fulfilled the conditions required for their admission to the Schengen zone. Nevertheless, if the governments of these two countries react immediately and earnestly to meet their roadmaps, they may still be able to make the cut; the Commission has expressed its openness to a new proposal by mid-2010.

"If this progress continues apace, I believe both countries will soon catch up with their neighbors," European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said.

"We consider the granting of the visa free regime to be a reward for our hard work, but it is also clear proof that we are a responsible and reliable partner to the EU," Montenegrin Ambassador Dragana Radulovic said. "We are fully dedicated to continuing to implement further reforms in the same manner, and further progress in the integration process will come as a result of that."

Hundreds of anxious travelers waited in huge lines at the borders on Dec. 19, when the legislation came into force. The excitement was seen on the thrilled faces of those who were waiting to see their family members after ten or even twenty years of disappointments and visa denials. Among them were those who proudly decided to travel simply for the sake of exercising their new right; many were leaving their country for the first time.  This high rate of travel marks the symbolic beginning of a new period in Balkans history.

"According to the research, 70% of young people have never crossed the borders of Serbia and this is their chance to start practicing their human right to exchange cultural experiences with their colleagues from the European Union," Bozinovic said.

Conversely, on the other side of the borderline are people whose opinions diverge greatly on the issue. They question the Commission’s decision while waiting nervously on the consequences that could emerge. Questions surrounding the Western Balkans’ security and border control budget remain, as many believe that large swaths of their borders are unsecured. Lack of security personnel as well as poor equipment has highly affected authorities’ ability to prevent illegal external border crossings – this has exposed EU nationals to a rise in criminal activity during past few years. Significant social and economic disparity could likely result in both legal and illegal emigration, particularly to the EU’s wealthiest countries.  While everybody waits for the post-effects to hit, some are already alarmingly aware of the protracted struggle against corruption that still plagues many countries in the former Yugoslavia – something that leaves many in Western Europe fearing a potential spillover effect.

"Due to her geographical position in the heart of Europe, Austria is affected by the general global trends in crime development, among them cross border widespread crime," Fekter said.

"We have developed sound counter-strategies and rely on international cooperation. The higher the standards in our environment, the better it is also for Austria. Proper work in the police forces of the (partner) countries in the Western Balkans also facilitates our work."

Ultimately, though the realities of these acts will prove challenging – and could be fraught with many obstacles – border liberalization is nonetheless a vital step towards European integration, as well as greater prosperity for the former Yugoslav states. From the prospective of these countries’ governments and officials, this measure will represent a step closer to their inclusion into the EU. The people of the Balkans have endured an extremely rough two decades – years of corruption, brutal warfare, dictatorship and criminality that have ravaged the infant states of the former Yugoslavia. One by one, each country began to wake up from these nightmares and endeavored to strengthen the standards of their social, economic and political systems for the purpose of improving the lives of their citizens. Visa liberalization represents hopes for a better future, and honors the long and constant battle for progress that the countries of the Western Balkans are still fighting to achieve.

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