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As EU Refloats Visa-Free Entry, Ethnic Serbs Say They Could Embrace Kosovo Passports

Residents in Gracanica, a majority-Serb municipality outside Kosovo's capital, sign a petition on local issues on October 3.
Residents in Gracanica, a majority-Serb municipality outside Kosovo's capital, sign a petition on local issues on October 3.

PRISTINA -- In a stubbornly divided country in a region synonymous with bitter ethnic fragmentation, few topics unite people as readily as visa liberalization.

"This would be good for everyone," Lilana, a resident of Gracanica, a majority-Serb municipality outside Kosovo's capital, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service, "both for us -- the Serbs -- and for the [ethnic] Albanians who live here in Kosovo."

They're the only citizens in the Balkans who still need visas to enter Schengen, a travel zone made up of European countries that have abolished checks at their mutual borders. For many Kosovars, that has compounded perceptions of second-tier status for the partly recognized country of just 1.7 million people, most of them ethnic Albanians.

But that could soon change.

Kosovars' hopes of liberalization have been buoyed recently by the country's inclusion on the Czech EU Presidency's wish list and the agenda of a gathering on October 13 of the European Council's Visa Working Party, which streamlines visa policy among the Schengen Area's 22 EU members and four associated countries.

"The European Union will review the technical aspects very soon, and I hope that under the Czech presidency they will reach an agreement and Kosovo will have visa liberalization," Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, whose country holds the rotating EU leadership through the end of the year, said in Pristina on September 29. "It's very difficult to predict a date, [but] my expectations for the decision are very big and it is part of my political agenda."

The visa issue also raises uncomfortable questions for the handful of EU states -- including Spain, Greece, and Romania -- that don't formally recognize Kosovo's sovereignty.

But there could also be pushback from France and the Netherlands, in particular, which have been blamed for the EU's failure so far to let in Kosovars visa-free mostly over rule-of-law concerns.

Lipavsky said Dutch officials encouraged him to pursue the technical issues first and only afterward to tackle the political debate.

The European Union's credibility in the Balkans has been damaged in recent years by contradictory signals on enlargement, member Bulgaria's veto on accession talks with North Macedonia, and the fast-tracking of Ukrainian and Moldovan applications to join the bloc without commensurate progress in the Western Balkans.

But for Pristina, Brussels' failure to grant visa-free status after the European Commission and the European Parliament concluded in 2018 that Kosovo had met all the requirements has been particularly painful.

Kosovo's president, Vjosa Osmani, reportedly told Lipavsky during his visit that Kosovars had been wronged by the postponement.

Last week, Osmani told RFE/RL's Balkan Service after meetings with foreign leaders in Prague that they expressed full support for visa liberalization for Kosovo, and the Czech presidency was "extremely supportive."

She said she was "a cautious optimist" on achieving it by the end of this year.

"We know that sometimes the bureaucrats within the member states can find ways to block processes, but I see the political will now among the EU leaders, so that such a thing is not blocked," Osmani said.

Travel rights to the West are a sensitive topic in the Balkans, where a half-century of relative privilege collapsed with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslav passports were coveted during the Cold War since they allowed their holders to travel freely between East and West.

The following decades of isolation for former Yugoslav passport holders eased only gradually after the European Union began granting visa-free travel to countries like Serbia, Montenegro, and the current North Macedonia beginning in 2009.

The nagging recognition question complicates the issue for Kosovo. Serbia refuses to recognize the independence of its former province and fosters close ties to northern Kosovo's ethnic Serb majority through shadow institutions and infrastructure, to the chagrin of Pristina.

Belgrade offers Kosovar Serbs a version of a Serbian passport through a Coordinating Directorate within the Serbian Interior Ministry, but that document can't be used for travel to third countries without a visa.

With Prime Minister Albin Kurti vowing to pressure Belgrade with "reciprocity" measures, tensions at the border with neighboring Serbia have increased with spats over license plates and documentation.

A breakthrough on Schengen visas could not only ease the lives of Kosovar travelers but also encourage minority Serbs in Kosovo to join a system whose sovereignty they've been reluctant to endorse.

Nenad, a resident of Northern Mitrovica, whose division along ethnic lines in 2013 followed violent clashes, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that he believes most of his fellow ethnic Serbs would seek Kosovar passports if getting so meant the end of visa requirements.

"For now, it's better without any passport," said Nenad, who did not want his surname published, "but if there's visa liberalization that's in any case very good, and I guarantee that among the people I know -- and that's no small circle -- everyone would get it."

Another Serb, Aleksandra, said when asked if she would finally apply for a Kosovar passport if it helped avoid visas, "Right away, right away, yes."

"I look at it from the point of view that it's important to me as an individual, and I'd be guided by that," she said. "I'd get the passport just so I could travel."

Sladjana, who is also from Gracanica, said she just wanted to be able to travel like her counterparts in neighboring Serbia.

"Liberalization is great progress for the whole population, for a normal life, that something good happens to us regardless of our nationality," she said.

Even though its population is the youngest in the region, Kosovo, like its neighbors, is wrestling with a demographic crisis as its citizenry emigrates in search of economic and political security.

Some critics suggest opening the Schengen border to short, visa-free visits risks encouraging more emigration or opening a path to illegal migration from the region.

Kosovars acknowledge it could encourage some of them to travel abroad for school or work, in addition to tourism.

"I think that if this time we manage to get [visa] liberalization, it will mean a lot for all young people in the areas of education or careers, as well as from the point of view of tourism," Stefan Stojanovic, who heads a youth NGO in Partes, a majority-Serb municipality southeast of Pristina, said.

But for 20-year-old Strahinja, it's a way to keep young people like him, who enjoy being in Kosovo, happy.

"It's good to live here, but you get bored. Everything's the same," said Strahinja, who lives in Gracanica. "You need to see the world a little."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondents Sandra Cvetkovic in Pristina and Maja Ficovic in Mitrovica North

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