On September 21, 2000, a Belgrade court convicted 20 world leaders of war crimes and sentenced them, in absentia, to 20 years in prison for orchestrating the NATO air strikes against Serbia the previous year. European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana was among the defendants.
Nonetheless, Belgrade recently welcomed the “war criminal” Solana, who brought with him some good news for Serbia – the EU had decided to drop its visa requirement for visitors from Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. That decision was formally announced in Brussels on July 15, although it must still be ratified by the 27 EU member states and the European Parliament. But the goal is to have visa-free travel for citizens of the three countries in place by January 1, 2010.
As might be expected, the news was received in the three countries with great pleasure. Their citizens have not enjoyed visa-free travel to the EU in 17 years. European Commission Vice President Jacques Barrot described the decision as "historic" for the former Yugoslav states, which have been promised eventual EU membership but which have seen their integration bids stall in recent years.
Lifting the visa requirement will definitely spark more Euro-optimism in these three countries. And in the longer term, it should increase openness and contacts between them and the EU and, it is to be hoped, ease their EU integration processes. Furthermore, it will certainly restrain the governments of these countries, all of which would be unlikely to adopt policies that would endanger this very popular benefit. In short, for Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, this EU decision could indeed be “historic.”
But what about their neighbors in the Balkans?
Divided Along Ethnic Lines
The public reaction in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been overwhelmingly negative, with many people there viewing the EU’s decision as anti-Muslim discrimination. After all, Bosnian citizens who are ethnic Croats have Croatian passports and, hence, visa-free entry into the EU. Bosnian Serbs have Serbian passports. Only Bosnia’s Muslims remain on the wrong side of the visa fence.
In effect, Bosnia has once again been divided along ethnic lines. This time, by the European Union.
At a time when most analysts are warning that the fragile country is on the verge of collapse, the EU is acting to intensify the ethnic fault lines there and to make Bosnia weaker.
And this is not the first time that Bosnia’s Muslims – the majority of whom have always had a pro-European, pro-Western outlook – have felt rejected.
In 1992, the UN Security Council banned arms sales to former Yugoslavia at a moment when Serbia was strong and well-equipped, while others in the region felt defenseless. Later, UN forces failed to maintain the so-called “safe zones,” leading to the horrific massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica, among other crimes. Most Bosnian Muslims (and some Western observers) believe that Croatia and Serbia have been rewarded by the EU despite policies that have undermined Bosnia’s integrity.
Solana has said that Bosnia and Kosovo will be included in the visa-free regime as soon as they meet border-control criteria and issue biometric passports. Ironically, Bosnia began issuing biometric passports the same day the EU formally announced the lifting of visas for Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.
On the other hand, border control is a serious issue and the EU is right to insist upon it. But the EU must recognize that border security in Kosovo and Bosnia does not depend only on the central governments of those countries. Both countries have seen their security undermined by the policies of Serbia.
In Bosnia, the leadership of the Bosnian Serb entity of the country – Republika Srpska – has the power to block any decisions it does not like, including those relating to border security. And, of course, Republika Srpska has no interest in controlling the border with Serbia. In fact, its leadership is more interested in strengthening the border between Repubika Srpska and the rest of Bosnia. And these divisive positions have been strongly supported – politically and financially – by Serbia.
In short, the state that has done most to prevent Bosnia from qualifying for visa-free travel to the EU has itself been rewarded with visa-free travel to the EU.
This EU decision demonstrates once again that various EU institutions use varying criteria for policies toward the countries of the Balkans.
Brussels insists, for instance, that Slovenia and Croatia resolve their border issues before Croatia may continue membership talks. But this was not a problem when Slovenia joined the EU in 2004. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) – with EU support – ruled that Serbia did not have to submit some documents related to military operations during the Bosnia war because of “national security.” But Croatia was compelled to turn over is military log books relating to the 1995 Operation Storm in Bosnia. Croatia was not allowed to start EU talks until it had extradited all indicted war criminals, while talks with Serbia have begun although fugitives remain at large. Croatia was forced to renounce its “special” relations with Bosnia’s ethnic Croats, while Serbia has not been pushed to cut ties with Bosnian Serbs.
And so on and so on and so on.
'I Am A Muslim Only'
All of this explains why Bosnian Muslims are outraged and see the EU visa policy as discrimination against them. The issue is not so much that the new regime was offered to Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, but that the EU has – in their eyes – done so little to help Bosnia meet the requirements to gain this benefit for itself.
"Bosnia should create visa-free regimes for all countries that are friendly to us,” one reader wrote on the website of RFE/RL’s Balkans Service. “Let us be part of a poorer, but more friendly world. Mr. Solana, I am not a citizen of Europe anymore. As of today, I am a Muslim only."
Bosnia’s foreign minister says the new policy has created a "ghetto" for Bosnia’s Muslims and that Sarajevo has no choice but to respond. Nobody should be surprised that the EU’s decision will lead to further radicalization and more intense divisions within Bosnia.
Solana doesn’t have to worry about Belgrade’s ruling that he is a war criminal; Serbia loves him now. But what the EU has been doing to undermine Bosnia in recent years – and especially this visa decision – truly borders on the criminal.
Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.