Serbs celebrate new freedom to travel Europe without visas

The European Union on Saturday opened its borders to visa-free travel for more than ten million Serbs, Montenegrins, and Macedonians after nearly 20 years of tight restrictions.

Darko Vojinovic/AP
People in cars wait to cross the Horgos border crossing into the Hungary, 180 kms north of Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday. Serbia, as well as Montenegro and Macedonia, on Friday were celebrating the lifting of travel restrictions to EU countries.

At a snowy bus stop in New Belgrade, Serbia, Nadja Miladinovic waited to venture abroad for the first time without a visa.

She hadn't done much planning, but said Friday that she was headed to Vienna for the weekend for no other reason than that she could now take advantage of a new agreement with the European Union that allows residents of Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia to travel visa-free throughout most of Europe.

“Now it’s different," says Ms. Miladinovic. "You feel free.”

The EU's dropping of a 17-year, strict visa requirement now allows residents of those countries to visit European countries with ease. It's sparking travel plans among eager young people who've long felt trapped by the visa requirements, some of whom have never left the borders of the former Yugoslavia.

Milan Nikolic, a sociologist and political analyst in Belgrade, calls the change symbolic, pointing out that less than 10 percent of Serbs actually have passports. Mr. Nikolic does not expect the number to rise significantly anytime soon, but he does acknowledge the importance of this agreement between Serbia and the EU. “This is more important than the direct effects,” he says. “In Serbia, it is considered rare to be treated in a positive way. We are used to the Hague coming and saying, ‘You are not doing this.’”

End of a 'counterproductive' restriction

Before the wars of the 1990s, an old red Yugoslavian passport was quite well received. But war in the Balkans changed that. The passports were changed to blue and residents needed visas to gain entry almost everywhere in Europe. Upholding the requirement has contributed to a feeling of isolation in Serbia.

Nikolic says the visa requirement was a tool used to cut Serbia off, and that the “blanket punishment” was counterproductive. He says it's widely known that war criminals and members of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime easily traveled in the 1990s and beyond even with visa restrictions in place, but that everyday Serbians were blocked. “If criminals and Milosevic's people never had any problems with visas, what does that say about the punishment?” says Nikolic.

“This affected the generation who voted against Milosevic in 2000, and the people who protested against him in the 90s,” says Djordje Milojevic. “The conditions just offended the people who are pro-Europe.”

As a young hostel owner in Belgrade, Mr. Milojevic knows the art of travel, even if the bulk of his knowledge comes from the travel tales of his guests. He says it has been difficult explaining to visitors that he cannot travel the same way they do. “You are glad you have people coming over, but it is a problem when people are unaware. That’s when it can hurt,” says Milojevic. “Even though I have heard stories from travelers, I think you still need to go see for yourself what’s what.”

Milojevic left the country to travel in 2007. But there were hefty fees attached to the visa application and a month long wait. If his application had been denied, he would have been out more than 100 euros. It is living under such a system that has a trapping effect, say many of the people from his generation.

“People felt in prison. You couldn’t leave unless you asked permission and filled out a very long visa form,” he says. “It is a big liberation. You actually feel liberated right now.”

Feeling trapped

Jovana Stokanic tried several times to obtain a visa. She had dreamed of studying in Germany. Applying for a visa meant signing in with the embassy at 1 a.m. to ensure a spot at the beginning of the line when it opened at 7 a.m. Once the embassy opened, an hour or so wait was considered good and meant finishing around 11 a.m., she said. Then she had to come back one week later and find out if she had been granted a visa.

She said her third rejection made her feel like she was going to have a nervous breakdown. No one ever explained to her why she was being denied. All she was told was that she could apply again in six months. But the idea of going to Germany no longer seemed possible. She finally decided to stay and study in Belgrade.

“The worst is when you don’t know you are in jail. If you can’t see a better opportunity for life, you accept it,” says Stokanic.

“I think the whole generation of young people here were really damaged because they couldn’t travel freely,” said Nebojsa Milenkovic, media adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration in Serbia. “It is like living in a box.”

Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration Bozidar Delic created a project to allow 50 Serbs that had never left the borders of the former Yugoslavia to spend eight nights abroad, traveling in Europe. The average age of those selected is 28. The group is traveling together and left Serbia late Friday night.

Aleksandra Jankovic, head of the office’s public relations unit, said the participants are from all over Serbia, including small villages. She said many of them might not have had such an opportunity to travel due to finances or obligations.

“It’s an opportunity to see other cultures, meet people and see how they live,” said Jankovic. “To make a bridge between Serbia and Europe.”

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