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Kosovo: Isolated in the Heart of Europe

In July last year, the European Union granted visa-free travel to citizens of three Western Balkans countries: Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. This refocused attention on the question: are Kosovo’s citizens living in isolation, and when will this isolation end?

The Kosovo Foundation for Open Society has been working for visa liberalisation since early 2009. This issue is particularly important as its realisation is a significant step on the road towards European integration. In July, the Foundation, through its Forum 2015 project, published a study entitled ‘Living in a Ghetto’. This presented a number of obstacles isolating Kosovo’s citizens from the rest of Europe, among them that Kosovo’s citizens face the highest rejection rate of all Balkan countries when applying for Schengen visas, and that they are the only people in the Western Balkans who need visas to travel within their own region.

Starkly, Kosovo citizens can travel to only four countries without visas. This is fewer than any other country in the world. Citizens of Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia have significantly greater freedom when travelling. This all when Kosovo does not require a visa of any single traveller wishing to enter its territory.

The release of ‘Living in a Ghetto’ coincided with the European Commission’s proposal to place Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia on the ‘White List’, that is, dismantle the visa regimes that had been in place until then. However, the Commission considered that two other countries in the region (Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina) had not yet made sufficient progress to benefit from visa liberalisation.

What disappointed the citizens of Kosovo and those who work for the country’s Euro-Atlantic development however, was the persistent failure to offer Kosovo a route towards visa liberalisation. In 2008, all the other countries in the Western Balkans received ‘roadmaps’, comprehensive plans detailing the reforms necessary for eventual visa liberalisation. Now, in 2010, Kosovo has not.

What the Commission did decide to do, however, was to place Kosovo on the so-called ‘Black List’, so that all persons residing in Kosovo are submitted to the visa requirement when entering the EU. Though this has been a practical reality for many years, this was the first time that the Commission had named Kosovo individually on this list. The Commission justified this by reference to “security concerns regarding in particular the potential for illegal migration stemming from…Kosovo”. It also specifically excluded those individuals who reside in Kosovo but who hold Serbian biometric passports from benefiting from the visa-free travel enjoyed by other Serbian passport holders.

Following the Commission’s proposal, the Foundation, in partnership with several other prominent civil society actors in Kosovo including for the first time a well-known Kosovo-Serb, made a direct appeal to EU decision-makers. Condemning Kosovo’s increasing isolation, it highlighted a number of concerns about the decision and called on all EU member states “whatever their view on Kosovo’s status” to offer Kosovo a roadmap; though Kosovo’s Government unilaterally adopted its own roadmap in 2009, this is insufficient without EU support.

In October 2009 however, the hope of progress appeared on the horizon. The Commission acknowledged that Kosovo citizens also need the possibility of travelling visa-free within the EU but stressed that this can only happen when Kosovo has made the reforms necessary to reduce the “security risks for EU Member States”. The first step on this road is for Kosovo to ensure that effective arrangements are made for the readmission of its citizens who are unlawfully residing in EU countries, and that these people are then properly reintegrated into Kosovo society. The Commission also stated that it will engage Kosovo in a visa dialogue and will formulate a comprehensive strategy to assist Kosovo in making the necessary reforms, but it failed to indicate when or if Kosovo would receive a roadmap.

The Foundation welcomes these measures but considers that they do not go far enough: Kosovo needs to progress alongside other countries in the Western Balkans in order for economic development and political stability to flourish. It cannot do this however, unless it treated in an equal way; Kosovo needs a roadmap just as all other states in the Western Balkans did. For this reason, we will continue to focus on and advocate for EU engagement on this issue. Our Director recently appeared on a national social/political affairs television show to discuss visa liberalisation, and the Foundation is currently developing a television documentary that will examine the impact and implications of the current visa regime and the way forward for the facilitation process.

Achieving visa liberalisation for all citizens of Kosovo will require real and substantive reform, but if the EU and Kosovo Government demonstrate the necessary political will, visa-free travel could be around the corner. Only then will Kosovo’s citizens be able to emerge from the isolation that they currently experience.

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