Serb relief as EU moves to ease travel 'sanctions'

16th July 2009, Comments 0 comments

The move, yet to be ratified by the European Union's 27 member nations and parliament, has long been awaited by the citizens of Serbia, the largest of the three ex-Yugoslav republic's with 7.5 million people.

Belgrade -- After almost two decades of feeling hated and trapped within their own borders, Serbians breathed a collective sigh of relief Wednesday as the EU confirmed moves to grant them visa free travel.

The European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, recommended the scrapping of visa requirements for travellers from Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro from the start of next year.

The move, yet to be ratified by the European Union's 27 member nations and parliament, has long been awaited by the citizens of Serbia, the largest of the three ex-Yugoslav republic's with 7.5 million people.

Miroslav Misic expressed delight at hearing the news as he stood in one of the many long queues that have become a common sight outside Belgrade's Western embassies.

"We will finally feel like normal people and not second-class citizens," the businessman told AFP while clutching a thick wad of documents to back his German visa application.

The 50-year-old said he was forced to wake up in the wee hours just in order to travel from his home in the western Serbian town of Valjevo and submit his application, complaining the procedure was "humiliating."

Among the dozens of others standing alongside him was Ana, a 44-year-old who said she was happy Serbians would "finally be able to travel" to most of Europe without administrative obstacles.

"I am particularly pleased because of what this means for young people. Many of them have never left Serbia," she said.

According to a Belgrade government-backed survey, more than 70 percent of Serbia's youths have never travelled abroad.

Earlier this week, Serbia's pro-Western President Boris Tadic said "the visa liberalisation is of extraordinary importance to our citizens."

The old visa policy was "the last sanction against our citizens as a consequence of wrong policies in the 1990s," he said in reference to the autocratic regime of late president Slobodan Milosevic.

At the start of Yugoslavia's bloody break-up, most Western nations imposed strict visa regimes on citizens from the region. Serbians faced the most stringent measures because of Milosevic's war policies.

But the European Union's move to abolish visas for Serbians was on Wednesday hailed by Bozidar Djelic, the country's deputy prime minister for European integration.

"The visa dungeon has been removed for the citizens of Serbia, but there is no room to relax, we have to keep up with reforms," Djelic was quoted as saying by Beta news agency.

Serbia last year signed an EU trade and aid accord seen as the first formal contract with the 27-member bloc.

But the Stabilisation and Association Agreement has been frozen ever since due to the Netherlands' insistence that Belgrade first shows it is "fully cooperating" with the UN war crimes tribunal based in The Hague.

That cooperation notably means the arrest of two remaining war crimes fugitives thought to be hiding in the Balkan country, former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic, wanted for the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica, and former Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who was in Montenegro on the last leg of a Balkans tour on Wednesday, said the recommendation for visa-free travel was "very, very important."

The liberalisation of the visa regime was proof that EU integration was "something tangible, something real, that people will take advantage of," Solana said.

AFP/Expatica

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