North of Kosovo, April 23, 2023. Photo: BIRN

New Proposal for Visa-Free Travel for Kosovo Serbs ‘Stirs Waters’

Less than 50 days separate all citizens of Kosovo who possess biometric passports from enjoying visa-free travel in Europe. However, a new proposal has divided the residents of Kosovo who wish to travel to their continent into two groups.

The possibility of lifting visas for Serbian citizens in Kosovo who do not possess passports from the country where they reside but rather from offices in Serbia has sparked new controversies in public opinion. Meanwhile, no date has been announced regarding whether a decision will be made on this matter.

While, on one hand, the Kosovo government considers it a violation of Kosovo’s sovereignty and the agreements of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, on the other hand, the European Commission’s proposal is seen as a possibility for all citizens of the Western Balkans to have visas. As the ball bounces from one table to another, the Serbian civil society in Kosovo claims that this proposal integrates Serbs more into Kosovar society, while civil society in Prishtina argues that it undermines their integration.

Despite the cacophony, it is still unclear which stance will prevail. However, what is stated in this proposal, which needs to pass through the hands of the European Parliament and EU member states for a decision to be reached?

In the November 16 proposal of the European Commission, a change to the EU Regulation is sought to allow free movement for holders of passports issued by the Serbian Coordinating Directorate. The rationale given is that “all citizens of the Western Balkans should benefit from visa-free travel.”

The proposal emphasizes that including holders of Serbian passports issued by the Serbian Coordinating Directorate is consistent with the EU’s efforts to expedite the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU.

Furthermore, the amended regulation is stated to be directly applicable from its entry into force and will be immediately implemented by the member states. “No implementation plan is necessary.”

Regarding the explanation of how this change is expected to be adopted, it is proposed in Annex II, Part 1 of the Regulation that: ‘Serbia (excluding holders of Serbian passports issued by the Serbian Coordinating Directorate)’ be replaced with ‘Serbia (including holders of Serbian passports issued by the Serbian Coordinating Directorate).’

Initially, in the Visa Regulation for Kosovo, it is emphasized that visa liberalization applies only to holders of biometric passports issued by the Republic of Kosovo. On April 18, 2023, the European Parliament approved Regulation (EU) 2023/850 – amending Regulation (EU) 2018/1806 to add Kosovo to the list of territories whose citizens are exempt from visa requirements.

In reality, Serbian citizens in Kosovo can travel without visas if they possess a Kosovo passport, the country where they reside. The Kosovo government views this proposal as incorrect, as the number of Serbs obtaining Kosovo passports has increased precisely at this moment. Data provided by government officials highlight a 29% increase in Kosovo passport applications by Serbs compared to the previous year.

While the European Commission proposal states that such a change has been discussed with Serbia and Kosovo, the Kosovo government denies being informed, consulted, or discussed on such a proposal.

The agreements between Kosovo and Serbia mediated by the EU from 2013 to 2023 recognize the authorities of Kosovo as the sole legitimate entities with the right to issue passports for the country’s citizens.

Mehdi Sejdiu, an advisor to Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi, told BIRN that visas issued by the Coordinating Center are not part of the regulation, and the European Commission’s proposal is to include them as part of the regulation for visa liberalization for Kosovo.

According to him, these passports pose a risk of inaccurate data and security breaches for which Kosovo cannot be held responsible. These documents have not undergone the security checks that Kosovo passports have, nor have they fulfilled the security criteria for visa liberalization set by the European Commission.

“As the process for Kosovo has been open, there has been no mention of these passports at all, only Kosovo passports. The rationale has been that Kosovo citizens, regardless of ethnicity, should have Kosovo passports, not passports from another state,” said Sejdiu.

According to Sejdiu, the EC’s proposal is a wrong decision and may have political implications on the ground, as well as in the issue of document security and civil registry.

He states that during the visa liberalization campaign, there has been an increased interest in Kosovo passports even in Serbian-majority municipalities in Kosovo.

“It (the proposal) comes in the context that Serbian citizens en masse are obtaining Kosovo passports. Therefore, Brussels, at a time when Serbian citizens in Kosovo are acquiring Kosovo passports en masse, is sending a “signal” with this proposal that they should not integrate and continue to lead an intermediate life,” he said, adding that Deputy Minister Bislimi has sent a letter to Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson rejecting such a proposal.

BIRN has sought data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs on how many Serbian citizens have applied for Kosovo passports, but they have not responded until the publication of this article.

Kosovo is awaiting EU member states and the European Parliament to reject this proposal. Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi invited the European Union to treat these documents as invalid, as it treats the rest of the parallel documentation.

Bislimi believes that the EC’s proposal, which has not been discussed with the Kosovo government, violates the agreements of the dialogue to dismantle illegal structures and undermines the integration of the Serbian community in Kosovo.

According to him, the illegally issued passports by the Coordinating Center of Serbia are considered by communities within Kosovo to be part of Serbia’s jurisdiction, a violation of our sovereignty and unacceptable.

Serbs from Kosovo also have the right to a Serbian passport, which received visa liberalization in 2009.

A step closer or further from integration

A clash of worldviews on whether such integration of the Serbian population in Kosovo should be encouraged or hindered has arisen between civil society organizations based in central Kosovo and those in the northern part of the country.

Twenty civil society organizations in Kosovo, in a letter to Commissioner Ylva Johansson, stated that the European Commission’s proposal would seriously challenge the progress in the integration of Serbian citizens in Kosovo.

Moreover, according to them, it will encourage criminal structures operating in the northern part of Kosovo to continue threatening and intimidating Serbian citizens in Kosovo who seek to integrate into the social and political life of the country.

Under the umbrella of the Group for Legal and Political Studies, GLPS, they have assessed that the EC’s proposal will seriously undermine the purpose and implementation of the Agreement on the road to normalizing relations between Kosovo and Serbia in 2023.

These agreements are based on the principle of respecting mutual integrity and sovereignty, previous agreements to remove parallel structures from Kosovo by Serbia.

According to these organizations, the EC’s proposal will allow the acceptance of personal documents issued by authorities that do not have the technical or legal ability to verify the data of the bearers of these documents, thereby jeopardizing the implementation of visa liberalization for Kosovo citizens.

A counter-reaction came from 15 non-governmental organizations located in the north of the country. They considered the letter from civil society in Kosovo offensive and unstable.

“More Serbs in Kosovo will not integrate if they are equipped with Kosovo passports than the number of those who already have Kosovo citizenship. This is because a passport cannot be obtained without an ID and proof of citizenship. In other words, a person who receives a new passport already has citizenship and is thus already integrated,” they listed in their arguments.

If an asylum seeker or a person violates the rules of visa liberalization for Kosovo in the host country, with this passport, it is unclear whether the person should be repatriated to Serbia, as Kosovo, through readmission agreements with Schengen Zone states, only accepts its own citizens and not citizens with passports from the Coordinating Center.

A representative of one of the organizations in the north, Miodrag Milicevic from the organization AKTIV, says that the reactions of NGOs in Kosovo sound like a political request rather than a request that would help the Serbs of Kosovo enjoy their guaranteed rights under the Constitution of Kosovo and existing mechanisms.

Milicevic sees this letter as part of a broader discourse on equality that denies guaranteed rights under the Law on Citizenship in Kosovo.

For Milicevic, this letter was a surprise. According to him, the letter disregards some very important facts. Crucially, Milicevic considers the agreement between the European Commission and the Republic of Serbia reached in 2009, which regulates the issuance of travel documents for Serbian citizens with its residence. Second, he considers the denial of access to citizenship.

“Ignoring these two factual elements may exclude the rights of communities for equality and, furthermore, exclude the freedom of movement of those denied citizenship in Kosovo,” he told BIRN.

According to him, based on an analysis by the organization he leads, 92% of Serbs in Kosovo have Kosovo documents. With this, he concludes that technical integration has already been achieved.

On the other hand, initiatives perceived as unfair or favoring one community over another may worsen existing tensions and deepen divisions between the Serbian and Albanian communities.

The decision for visa liberalization has received the green light from all European Union instances and was signed on April 19, 2023, by the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, and the Minister of Sweden, Jessika Roséall, representing the Council of the European Union.

This decision marked the final step in the visa liberalization process, which has lasted for more than 10 years since the start of the dialogue for visa liberalization for Kosovars.

According to the decision, the start date for visa liberalization for citizens of Kosovo will be when the authorization and travel verification system, ETIAS, becomes functional, no later than January 1, 2024.

The history of visa liberalization for Kosovo

The European Commission initiated the dialogue for visa liberalization with Kosovo on January 19, 2012. In June 2012, the Commission presented Kosovo with a Visa Liberalization Roadmap, identifying the legislation and institutional measures that Kosovo needed to adopt and implement to progress towards visa liberalization.

The roadmap outlined a comprehensive list of reforms, including reintegration and reacceptance, document security, border and migration management, asylum, the fight against organized crime and corruption, and fundamental rights related to freedom of movement.

The Commission approved four progress reports on Kosovo’s achievements in the visa dialogue and presented its proposal to lift visa requirements for Kosovo citizens on May 4, 2016. The proposal was based on the reasoning that by the time it was approved by the European Parliament and the Council, Kosovo would have ratified the border demarcation agreement with Montenegro and strengthened its achievements in the fight against organized crime and corruption, thus meeting the final standards.

After numerous sessions, debates, and opposition, Kosovo ratified the Demarcation Agreement with Montenegro. However, Kosovo citizens, the only ones in the region, still did not have the opportunity to travel visa-free to Schengen Area countries.

The 2018 progress report confirmed the fulfillment of all criteria. Based on this report, with the ratification of the border demarcation agreement with Montenegro on March 21, 2018, one of the remaining criteria was also fulfilled.

The latest report confirmed that Kosovo continues to meet all other criteria outlined in the Visa Liberalization Roadmap regarding re-acceptance and reintegration, document security, migration and border management, public order and safety, and fundamental rights related to freedom of movement.

On August 12, 2022, the Government of Kosovo submitted an updated technical report to the European Commission, emphasizing achievements in law enforcement, the fight against corruption and organized crime, repatriation, and asylum and migration management. Following the positive assessment of this update, the Czech Presidency placed it on the Council’s agenda in the visa working group, unlocking a process that had been stalled for four years.

and 29/11/2023 - 14:35

29 November 2023 - 14:35

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