01 September , 2022

Open Balkans, closed borders

Open Balkans, closed borders

Authors: Aleksandra Tomanic and Katarina Tadic European Fund for the Balkans

Everybody is talking about regional cooperation. Yet, few fully understand it or agree on its meaning. It comes in various forms – inclusive and non-inclusive, intergovernmental, political, economic, externally driven or locally owned….

Much has undoubtedly been done, but not everybody in the Balkans have benefited from it equally. People holding passports from Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) still need to go through a burdensome procedure to obtain a visa for entering the other country.

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is the only country in the region, apart from Serbia, that does not recognise the independence of Kosovo, as Republika Srpska aligns with Serbia. Until 2010, citizens of Kosovo could enter BiH only with a special approval by the Council of Ministers of BiH, if assessed that their arrival is of interest to the country. This practice was then changed at the initiative of the BiH Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so that Kosovars can apply for the BiH visas in embassies in Skopje, Belgrade or Podgorica, since there is no diplomatic mission in Pristina. The previous visa procedure was replaced by a much more complicated one, followed by Kosovo´s reciprocal measure in 2014.

If someone from Sarajevo or Banja Luka, for example, wants to spend a weekend in Prizren, visit its beautiful Sinan Pasha Mosque or Our Lady of Ljeviš church, they need to go through an arduous procedure that will cost them (a lot of) money and time.

Since Kosovo does not have a diplomatic mission in Sarajevo either, citizens of BiH can only apply for a Kosovo visa in Tirana or Zagreb. So an applicant needs to travel personally to one of the cities, to submit documents, and then wait several weeks for an approval before returning to Zagreb or Tirana to pick it up in person. The list of documents required for the application is long and costly: an application form, passport copy, invitation letter from a company or an individual who has to be a citizen of Kosovo (certified by a notary – again, time and money), copy of the invitee’s passport, proof of accommodation, travel health insurance, proof of possession of sufficient financial means, confirmation of employment, confirmation that one is not under investigation (from the court), and the list goes on.

This list might trigger an old trauma for many citizens of the region who remember the process of obtaining a Schengen visa before it was abolished for everybody, except for Kosovo citizens. Overall, the total cost of obtaining a visa for Kosovo including all travel costs, administrative fees, etc, is around €250. For a country with an average salary less than €500, this is beyond the reach of many, especially young people.

As the European Fund for the Balkans has recently experienced while organising a regional meeting in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovinaalsohas a long list of requirements for having Kosovo citizens at an event in the country. Namely, for a two-day meeting in Sarajevo, only a local organisation could have not only sent an invitation letter for participants from Kosovo to the embassy in Skopje, but also provide a following list of documents: request for certification of the invitation letter, verified by an authorized person (organisation); completed invitation letter form; certified copy of the decision on entry in the court register; proof of solvency; certificate from the Tax Administration; certificate from the Indirect Taxation Authority; copy of the travel document of a foreigner coming on a business visit; proof of payment of the €25 administrative fee for the certification of the invitation letter (for each person); certificate from the municipality stating the benefits of the involvement of the person (for whom the invitation letter is submitted) in given activity.

Unfortunately, the nightmarish procedure does not end there. After all required documentation is collected, one must submit the documents to the nearest branch of the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, and after a minimum of 5-7 days, a field visit at the organisation’s premises precedes the completion of the procedure. More often than not, visa applications get rejected with no explanation provided.

Yet, even when visas are approved, their holders regularly face interrogations and unjustified delays at the border by BiH officers, according to the experience of civil society representatives from Kosovo.

Thus, the visa regime between Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina is not an administrative formality, but a hostile procedure that makes citizens of the other country feel unwelcome. The visa regime seems as purposefullydesigned to discourage anyone from even trying to bring people from the entire region together. At the same time, it requires financial and human resources that hardly anybody has for this purpose.

Ironically, we do not hear often about this issue, neither from international officials nor local politicians who endlessly speak about the benefits and enhancement of regional cooperation. If two out of six countries still have a reciprocal visa regime, how did we let that be put aside while speaking only about mutual recognition of diplomas or a common regional market, when there is no fundamental freedom of movement for more than 5 million people?

Regional cooperation in the Western Balkans is at the very heart of EU integration. Much has been done in the past decades, many regional bodies and initiatives have been established (from the Regional Cooperation Council to the Regional Youth Cooperation Office), mobile roaming charges have been abolished, travelling with IDs only has been made possible.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo must demonstrate statehood maturity and a constructive approach with regard to regional cooperation by abolishing their respective visa regimes. As far as Kosovo is concerned, the government is constantly, and justly, reminding the EU that its citizens remain the only ones in the Western Balkans unfairly deprived of a visa free regime to enter the Schengen Area, even though Kosovo has fulfilled all EU’s criteria for visa abolishment back in 2018. Nevertheless, Kosovo has not introduced reciprocal measures towards citizens of the Schengen area, and the same principles should apply to its regional neighbours. As an act of political maturity and good will towards citizens of BiH, Kosovo should at least conditionally abolish its visa regime towards BiH as soon as possible. Kosovo should do it, because it understands, better than any other country in the region, the impact of an unjustified visa regime, and that it mostly affects ordinary citizens.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the other hand, should recognise that an openness to regional economic cooperation cannot coexist with complicated visa regimes. As a reminder, Zoran Tegeltija, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of BiH, was one of the vocal proponents of enhanced regional cooperation at the recent Open Balkans Summit, while Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, also emerged as a strong supporter of a common regional market for the Western Balkans. If it wants to join any regional economic cooperation initiative, BiH would logically have to abolish its visa regime towards the citizens of Kosovo.

Placing a visa-free Western Balkans on the regional agenda could also be a very concrete goal of the renewed Berlin Process, which is about to start again.

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