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Will Serbs' Rejection Of Kosovar Passports Dissolve Now That EU Is Liberalizing Visa Regime?

A woman walks under Serbian flags in North Mitrovica, predominantly populated by the ethnic Serb minority, amid municipal elections in the north of Kosovo on April 23.
A woman walks under Serbian flags in North Mitrovica, predominantly populated by the ethnic Serb minority, amid municipal elections in the north of Kosovo on April 23.

NORTH MITROVICA, Kosovo -- Frustrated by decades of outsider status and bromides about European unity and integration, Kosovo got a morale boost last week when the European Union agreed to liberalize its visa regime for Kosovar passport holders by January 2024.

But not all 2 million of the landlocked former Serbian province's inhabitants are starry-eyed at the news that lawmakers in the European Parliament voted to allow Kosovars to travel to the Schengen zone, which includes 23 EU member states, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland, for up to 90 days within a 180-day period.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs, concentrated heavily in the north but also elsewhere in Kosovo, don't recognize Kosovar independence or the government in Pristina. They reject its authority on issues ranging from customs to electricity, to IDs.

Such objectors risk exclusion from the Schengen short-stay exemption -- a particularly bitter form of hell in the eyes of many formerly globetrotting ex-Yugoslavs -- if the lure of visa-free travel doesn't outweigh their disdain for Kosovar officialdom.

Some, however, are already signaling a reluctant change of heart.

"I'm waiting for them to tell me to come and pick up my Kosovar passport," said Nenad, a Serb in North Mitrovica, a city in northern Kosovo that remains ethnically divided 10 years after the so-called Brussels Agreement that was supposed to help normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia and by extension ethnic Albanians and Serbs.

Nenad, who didn't want to give his full name, decided to apply after hearing that the European Union was likely to finally open its doors to Kosovars.

He wants to travel because, like many residents of this postwar region wracked by youth unemployment and massive emigration, he's got relatives and friends in Western Europe.

"I couldn't [travel] because I didn't want to be -- how can I say it without being rude -- 'stamped' with that passport issued by the Coordination Directorate," Nenad says, referring to an arm of the Serbian government that handles relations with people born or resident in Kosovo in the absence of recognition of the country. Serbian law recognizes those individuals as Serbian nationals, but their passports are issued by the Serbian Coordination Directorate in Belgrade rather than the Serbian Interior Ministry.

Holders of regular Serbian passports were granted visa-free Schengen travel in 2009.

The legislation, approved by the European Parliament on April 18 and signed into law the next day, explicitly restricts the visa exemption to holders of passports issued by Kosovo's authorities.

Kosovo is the last of the so-called Western Balkan six -- which includes non-EU members Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia -- whose citizens need visas to enter any of the 23 EU or four non-EU Schengen countries.

Kosovo is a "potential candidate" for EU accession following its formal application in December 2022. But beyond the limited appetite for early enlargement among some of the bloc's current members, experts say Kosovo's bid hinges on the success of efforts to normalize relations between Pristina and Belgrade.

Even amid signs of cautious progress in EU-mediated talks to break the diplomatic stalemate, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has vowed he will never formally acquiesce to "factual or de jure" recognition of Kosovar independence.

It's still tense in the regions nearest the border with Serbia, exemplified last weekend by the boycott of special elections in a handful of Serb-majority communities to replace mayors who quit over a cross-border dispute in November 2022 concerning vehicle registration.

Serbs are estimated to compose between 1 percent and 2 percent nationally but are a majority in the northern municipalities of North Mitrovica, Leposavic, Zvecan, and Zubin Potok.

Sladjana Pantovic, a candidate for mayor of Zvecan, casts her vote in Kosovo on April 23 accompanied by a security escort.
Sladjana Pantovic, a candidate for mayor of Zvecan, casts her vote in Kosovo on April 23 accompanied by a security escort.

Only around 3 percent of the electorate cast ballots after the Serbian List party and other opponents of recognition for Kosovo since its 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia boycotted the vote. The only Serbian mayoral candidate who broke with the boycotters to run in the city of Zvecan, Sladjana Pantovic, required a security escort to ensure her safety at the polling station on April 23.

Zoran, a Serb in North Mitrovica who only gave his first name, says he doesn't recognize Kosovo's passport. "What they got is shameful," he told RFE/RL. "I would never in my life take their passport, that Kosovo passport, even if it costs me never leaving the country."

Officials say 860 Kosovar passports were issued during 2022 in the four Serb-majority northern municipalities, and another 269 granted in the first three months of 2023.

But Zoran says he thinks all is not lost for individuals like himself who hold the Serbian Coordination Directorate's passport. "I think a solution will be found," he said. "People should be patient, [and] we should believe in our country, Serbia."

He also allows that more Serbs might be swayed toward getting a Kosovar passport and notes there were previous objections to recognizing identification cards issued by Serbia and Kosovo until an EU-brokered deal was finally reached last August. "It was the same for ID cards," Zoran said. "'We want to get ID cards,' 'We don't want to get ID cards.' In the end, they all got them, 90 percent, if not more."

Serb Zoran Milenkovic vows he'll never get a Kosovar passport. "Something will be done so that we Serbs have that [internationally recognized] Serbian passport, probably," he said. "I don't know right now -- everything depends on how those from Serbia treat us."

At a press conference in Strasbourg after the signing of the Schengen exemption on April 19, European Parliament rapporteur Thijs Reuten said the visa requirement for Kosovars "was unfair and unjustified" and he welcomed approval as having "finally" rectified an inequity.

"I think the legislation is clear. It is about passports issued by the Kosovo authorities, and Serbian passports of Serbs living in Serbia already have enjoyed visa-free travel," Reuten stressed. "So, it's, I think, very carefully formulated in the regulation and that's what it is, nothing more, nothing less: All Kosovo citizens with a Kosovo-issued travel document can enjoy visa-free travel."

Next to him, Kosovar First Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi, who is responsible for European integration and dialogue for Pristina, added bluntly, "Belgrade is not Kosovo."

Bislimi said he wished "citizens that have passports issued in Belgrade will hopefully use this period of eight months to acquire regular Kosovo passports so that they can also enjoy the benefits of the decision."

He vowed that "my government will do everything in its authorities to facilitate this process so that by January 1 every citizen of Kosovo is equipped with a legal and valid passport."

But many ethnic Serb objectors appear willing to remain on the outside looking in, rather than to soften their personal opposition to legitimizing Kosovar state authorities.

"It's all fake, and admittedly our country, Serbia, is not very kind to us either -- it's both mother and stepmother, mostly stepmother," said Darko, a Serb in North Mitrovica who only gave his first name. "[But] we don't want to be citizens of that quasi-republic."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Maja Ficovic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service

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