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Serbs enjoy tastes of Europe under visa-free regime

Horgos border crossing — It was no ordinary lunch for Serbian couple Zoran and Aleksandra Mladenovic in the Hungarian town Szegeg at the weekend, but their first visa-free trip in the EU after nearly two decades.

"She has been so sceptical about the news that I had to promise her lunch and shopping in the EU as soon as the visa regime was lifted," Zoran said.

Visas had been introduced as the former Yugoslav communist federation was dissolving in a series of bloody wars in the early 1990s and the restriction was lifted on December 19 for all citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

"If this is real, if we really cross the border only with our passports, I will start to believe that we will live to see Serbia become an EU member," said Aleksandra, an architect and mother of two.

Maja, a 23-year old web designer from the northern town of Kikinda, was also going to Szeged with her fiancé Srdja and Gordana, her mother, who remembers the old times when she "travelled through Europe just for fun"

"Ever since visas were introduced I felt I was living in an imprisoned country," Gordana said. "This is a new beginning for all of us."

Heavy snow and temperatures of minus 15 degrees Celsius kept the numbers crossing the borders down, but Serbian border police chief Mladen Mrdalj told AFP it was just taking time for everybody to adjust to the new regime.

First to cross the border after midnight on December 19 was Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic and local officials from the town of Subotica some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the border.

Mrdalj said some 50 citizens from a neighboring town of Kanjiza then followed, walking across the border into Hungary.

"Our policemen give all the passengers a flier with all the information they need for visiting an EU country, their rights and obligations", he said.

Karolj Deak, a 73-year-old pensioner from the Serbian town Backa Topola has a daughter and granddaughter who live in Szeged, but "this morning I just rang them up and said I was coming for lunch. It’s such a good feeling," he smiled.

In a car from Belgrade, a 52-year old Veljko was waiting with his wife and teenage daughter to cross into Hungary, explaining "we are going to Budapest for a coffee. Just like that, to see how it feels".

Non-governmental organisation ‘New Optimism’ from northeastern Serbia took 50 fellow citizens on a bus trip to the neighbouring Romanian town Timisoara to meet the mayor and have "a coffee and cake in the European Union."

"We believe that this visa liberalisation is a very important thing," Branislav Grubacki, head of the NGO, told AFP by telephone.

Among the passengers are 20 young people who have never travelled abroad. "They will cross a border for the first time in their life and do so without visas," he said.