Capital Prishtina
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 377 (Monaco); 381 (Serbia)
Mobile Codes 44
Currency Euro
Land Area 10,908 sq km
Population 1.8 million
Language Albanian, Serbian, Turkish
Major Religions Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism

Kosovo’s Visa Liberalization Troubles: Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door

By Maja Šoštarić in Prishtina

Anyone who has seen the classic 1956 movie “The Searchers,” starring John Wayne and Natalie Wood, must remember the scene where Wayne carries Wood after finally having found her. At the end of his restless quest, he looks her deep in the eye and tells her the following memorable words: “Let’s go home, Debbie.”

Kosovo can perhaps be compared to Natalie Wood in that scene, since the youngest world’s country often needs a strong cowboy to make sure things go back to normal. The real question is then: is the EU that cowboy, or should it become one?

Suspended Animation

A morning mini-bus to Skopje is just about to depart from the Prishtina bus station. At the very last minute before departure, two young men with black rucksacks hop on the bus. After some initial haggling over why on Earth they had to be so late, the driver demands to see their travel documents and bus tickets, after which the men show their brand new Kosovo passports.

Again, at the Kosovo-Macedonian border, the men repeat the same action with some odd combination of satisfaction and defiance. A border police officer takes a quick, uninterested look, then stamps the passports and lets the bus enter Macedonia. The young men, who are exiting Kosovo for the very first time in their lives, can’t help but grin proudly.

In fact, for Kosovars such a smooth, visa-free border-crossing is possible in only five countries: Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Turkey and Haiti (the last one is doubtless not the common destination for Kosovars). Other countries either do not let the citizens of Kosovo enter their territories without a valid visa, or do not recognize their ‘blue’ passports at all (thus not approving their entry whatsoever – Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina being the most quoted examples).

Despite the existence many other more pressing issues, visa liberalization is a never-ending topic of discussion in Kosovo. Accordingly, on April 7, 2011 Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, as well as a number of the country’s ministers, spoke at a meeting on visa liberalization, notably on the issue of reintegration and repatriation. Both local and international decision makers and NGO representatives were invited.

Mr Thaci called upon Kosovo’s municipal leaders to do their best to facilitate the local repatriation procedures for readmitted persons of Kosovo living illegally across Europe.  Visa liberalization for Kosovo would imply visa-free travel (of up to 90 days) to the Schengen countries. One-quarter of Kosovo’s estimated population of 2 million lives abroad, mostly in Germany, Switzerland and the Nordic countries.

A Question of Priorities?

Although the government is obviously striving to make some progress in terms of gaining visa liberalization, the EU does not seem to be impressed. Not addressing the Kosovo status issue, the EU has recently accepted the role of mediator in a newly launched technical dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo.

The interlocutors from Kosovo civil society organizations perceive that for the EU, Serbia is a higher priority than Kosovo. As a recent study of the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society and Foreign Policy Club (Aiming High: A European Vision for the Dialogue Between Kosovo and Serbia, March 2011) affirms, Kosovo is an unequal partner.

The study argues that while Serbia is a regular contractual partner of the EU, Kosovo is only a “mild EU protectorate” (with executive powers in both ICR/EUSR and EULEX’s hands). “Kosovo custom stamps are recognized by both the UN and all 27 EU member states under the UNSCR Resolution 1244,” explains Engjellushe Morina, Executive Director of the Kosovo Stability Initiative (IKS), “and still, Kosovo exports, thus all goods with Kosovo stamps, are currently being blocked by Serbia and Bosnia.”

Kosovo wants to raise this stamp issue, which is another important problem next to visa liberalization, in CEFTA, which it is currently chairing. The dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo is about to deal with technical issues, such as customs, airspace and cadastre records. There is much local pressure on both governments not to make concessions, and there is also some pressure on the EU to finally show that it is a respectable actor in global politics. It is clear that the dialogue, among other things, must help Kosovo to end its current international isolation.

Life in “a Ghetto”

Unlike its Balkan neighbors, Kosovo remains the only country that has not yet specified where exactly it stands on the path towards EU integration. There is no visa roadmap, no Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), and, needless to say, no EU membership application.

Of all Western Balkan countries, besides Kosovo, only Bosnia and Herzegovina has never submitted a formal membership application. Still, it did sign an SAA (2008) and its citizens have been able to travel visa-free since December 2010. Consequently, not only is Kosovo by far the most isolated country of the Western Balkans and Europe; according to the Forum 2015 and the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society study entitled Living in a Ghetto (2009), it is argued that Kosovo also remains the most isolated country of the world.

The above-mentioned Forum 2015 analysis points out that when it comes to traveling across Europe, Kosovars face more obstacles than any other nation in the Balkans. They remain the most rejected Schengen visa applicants, pay the highest application costs, and encounter many other hurdles due to non-recognition of their travel documents.

Kosovars find this situation extremely difficult because, on the one hand, their primary motivation for traveling do not seem to be tourist visits or work abroad; quite on the contrary, they cite family visits as their main traveling purpose.

On the other hand, the economic situation of many of Kosovo’s impoverished citizens makes it impossible for them to cover the high costs of visa issuance. Consequently, those citizens who are economically better off (and these are a clear minority in Kosovo) also have much better chances of obtaining visas for travel across Europe.

Navigation, without a Roadmap

When in May 2008 the European Union launched a visa liberalization process for the countries of the Western Balkans, it defined a roadmap with a number of criteria every country had to fulfill before being placed on the Schengen White List. As an ESI Discussion Paper notes, things in Kosovo looked much better back in 1991: after the break-up of Yugoslavia, Kosovars could still travel to a few dozen countries without a visa, using their old Yugoslav passports.

Then, in 1999, a UN protectorate was created following the war, which left Kosovars with a choice of either an UNMIK Travel Document (enabling them to travel to only three countries without a visa – Albania, Macedonia and Turkey) or accepting a Yugoslav (later Serbian) passport. The latter was difficult to obtain, since after 1999, most Kosovo archives were transferred to Serbia. Thus, Kosovars had to travel to Belgrade in order to obtain the Yugoslav passport, which they did, because it then enabled them to travel visa-free to approximately 40 countries of the world.

The next turning point happened in August 2008, when Serbia started issuing biometric passports, thus doing its own homework in order to obtain a visa roadmap. According to the ESI paper quoted just above, over 7,000 Kosovars received a Serbian biometric passport, which, after December 19, 2009 (when Serbia was granted a visa-free regime), would enable them to travel to the Schengen countries without a visa.

Going Biometric

Nevertheless, in 2009, it became extremely complicated for the rest of Kosovars to obtain a Serbian passport. In its Proposal from 15 July 2009, the Commission suggests that, until the establishment of a specific ‘Coordination Directorate’ in Belgrade, Serbia should stop issuing biometric passports to Kosovars.

Furthermore, the Commission considers that, “in view of security concerns regarding in particular potential for illegal migration from persons residing in Kosovo and persons whose citizenship certificate has been issued for the territory of Kosovo under UNSCR 1244/99,” the holders of Serbian passports issued by the Coordination Directorate (i.e., citizens of Kosovo) should be excluded from the visa-free regime in Serbia.

Since the EU cannot agree on its status, Kosovo was subsequently put on the Schengen ‘Black List’ (next to Taiwan and the Palestinian Territory). Moreover, no Kosovar can obtain a Serbian (‘red’) passport without traveling to Belgrade, which is a costly and time-consuming matter, since Serbia does not recognize Kosovo IDs or passports.

Eventually, in its 2009 Communication to the European Parliament and the Council (COM 2009, 5343) entitled Kosovo – Fulfilling its European Perspective (in short, Kosovo Study), the Commission put forward a proposal to launch “a visa dialogue with the perspective of visa liberalization” for Kosovo, however refraining from using the terminology it normally used with other Western Balkan countries (such as ‘visa roadmap’).

So where does Kosovo stand today? Exactly where it stood back in 2009: it still has no EU guarantees for a visa-free regime. There is no document in place, be it a roadmap or a ‘comprehensive strategy,’ as some now propose calling it. In fact, as Edon Cana, Secretary General in the Ministry of European Integration of Kosovo, underlines for, it is pure semantics as to how the document is called. The name is irrelevant – what matters is that Kosovo has not yet been offered an official list of criteria.

A Lack of Consensus

A frequent explanation for this is that the EU has no common agreement on Kosovo’s status. While 22 out of 27 EU countries have officially recognized Kosovo, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania have refused to do so. Therefore, it is impossible to talk about integrating into the Schengen area a country that is not even recognized as such by all EU member states.

Conversely, the European Commission Liaison Office in Prishtina underlines that the visa facilitation measures should not be overlooked. Pending the entry into force of a possible visa free regime with Kosovo, it is important to focus on how the visa process can be facilitated for some categories of applicants (students, members of civil society organizations, etc.). The EU already has several visa facilitation agreements with countries as diverse as Albania, Ukraine or Moldova. These measures include, for instance, lower visa fees, simplified visa procedures or more scholarships and exchange programs for students and researchers.

In the case of other Western Balkans countries, this was done through visa facilitation agreements. This, the Commission believes, may be difficult to achieve with Kosovo at this stage.

However, a certain degree of visa facilitation could theoretically be achieved in Kosovo as well, on the basis of the Community code on visas. This would involve a formal decision of the relevant Council formations (visa committee) based on the assessment of the Local Schengen Cooperation (LSC) group. This is a group chaired by the European Commission Liaison Office gathering heads of visa offices of the Schengen Embassies/offices.

In the framework of LSC, within the same country/location there should not be any significant discrepancies in the service fee charged to applicants by different Member State consulates; a significant information sharing should occur; and other relevant service fees (such as insurance fees) should also be harmonized. Currently, the visa fee is still €60 for some and €35 for other categories of travelers, and the visa fee waivers don’t apply necessarily to the same categories from one visa office to the other.

In the absence of an official visa roadmap, Kosovo government has taken a number of unilateral steps in order to meet the criteria modeled after those presented to other neighboring countries. In May 2009, the government adopted its own Roadmap for the implementation of criteria for visa liberalization process between the Republic of Kosovo and the European Union.

Furthermore, as Edon Cana from the Ministry of European Integration elaborates, there have been substantial achievements in four roadmap areas: readmission and reintegration of readmitted persons, civil registries and document security, integrated border management (IBM), and fight against corruption and organized crime.”

Readmission Guarantees: A Complicated Process

In June 2010, the Government adopted the Law on Readmission. Under this law, Kosovo has to take back all its citizens who are illegally residing in the EU, as well as other third-country nationals if the member state in question can prove that they came to the EU via Kosovo.

While other Balkan countries had to conclude singular readmission agreements with the EU, in Kosovo’s case, the situation is further complicated by the fact that the country is not recognized by five member states. Therefore, it needs to conclude a series of single bilateral agreements, plus adopt a law that covers the non-recognizers and the countries where Kosovo migrants are a negligent minority.

Apart from adopting the law, Kosovo has so far either concluded or started negotiations on bilateral readmission with a number of European countries. Also, Secretary General Cana adds, Kosovo has revised a mechanism for reintegration of repatriated persons, and has also begun working on improving document security (with the objective of issuing biometric passports).

Of course, a precondition for issuance of biometric passports is that the civil registry and cadastres, taken to Belgrade in the 1998/1999, are properly returned to Kosovo authorities and brought back in order.

“The most challenging issues for the government are certainly in the area of readmission and repatriation, as well as in fighting corruption,” Fatmir Curri, Program Coordinator at Kosovo Civil Society Foundation (KCSF) and one of the key experts on visa liberalization in Kosovo stated for “The government should have started earlier to deal with all these matters,” adds Curri, avoiding – as does everyone else in Kosovo – speculation about a possible timeframe for the EU’s ‘strategy’ regarding the list of criteria for visa liberalization.

A Special Envoy To Be Appointed?

The last such timeframe was September 2010; when the expectations were not met at that time, citizens became more frustrated, and the government in turn started blaming the EU. Prime Minister Thaci promised to deal with the issue without further delay, if his party, the PDK, won the December 2010 elections.

Accordingly, in civil society circles, rumor has it now that the government is planning to appoint a special Kosovo envoy in Brussels, responsible only for visa liberalization matters. No one seems to understand the logic behind this, given that Kosovo already has a Ministry of European Integration in Prishtina as well as an ambassador in Brussels, who both are in charge of lobbying for visa abolishment. In a report entitled Challenges of Integration, Kosovo NGO Çelnaja assesses that the ministry is in urgent need of further human and financial resources in order to be fully functional.

Economic Woes Fuel Fear of an Exodus

With the estimated unemployment rate at 45% and 2 out of 5 Kosovars living below the poverty line (UNDP Kosovo Human Development Report 2010), Kosovo’s economic prospects do not look rosy at all. “Every second young person (aged 18-25) that is unemployed wants to leave the country,” Lumir Abdixhiku, executive director of the Riinvest Institute, says for Abdixhiku also notes with concern that Kosovo’s economy has three main drivers: government expenditures, remittances and donor money (financial assistance), none of which counts as an investment.

Having in mind Kosovo’s huge diaspora, remittances from abroad add up to €400 million (roughly 13% of the country’s GDP), which, according to Abdixhiku, will be downsized in the future, given what he calls a ‘third generation’ problem: young Kosovars not feeling as connected to their country as their parents and grandparents were. Therefore, with remittances falling and donors slowly leaving the country, Kosovo’s economic torpor might even worsen.

Turmoil on the Political Scene

Kosovo’s political situation is not bright either. The country experienced significant turmoil with the no-confidence vote for Prime Minister Thaci in November 2010, followed by extraordinary elections of December 2010 that reinstalled the PDK-Thaci-led government.

Thaci himself has been entangled in allegation of organ trafficking, originally mentioned by former Hague Tribunal Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte. The controversial allegations were noted in the December 2010 report of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, drafted by the Swiss rapporteur Dick Marty. The allegations, which enraged Kosovars and their ethnic kin from beyond the country, have so far not been substantially confirmed (though Serbia and human-rights advocates have called for an independent investigation. The issue remains a hot topic for ethnic Albanians.

Moreover, the construction-sector billionaire Behgjet Pacolli was – briefly – elected Kosovo’s president in February 2011. However, shortly after that, the Constitutional Court spotted significant irregularities and in March 2011, it annulled the presidential election. Eventually, in April 2011, the Assembly elected Atifete Jahjaga, who formerly held important positions in the Kosovo Police, as Kosovo’s first female president.

The country itself remains divided: as a report by the International Crisis Group has recently argued, the status of Kosovo’s North is an insurmountable issue: Post-Yugoslav Kosovo has never had effective control over the north of Kosovo and Prishtina argues that parallel institutions are in place there, thus presenting a danger of fragmentation of Kosovo sovereignty and a loss of credibility of its governing structures.

Critiques from Civil Society

Despite their often harsh criticism towards the government, Kosovo civil society representatives all agree that the main problem is the lack of political will within the EU as a whole, as well as the fact that it is undergoing a learning process based on the mistakes made in other Western Balkan countries. As Krenar Gashi, executive director of one of Kosovo’s most influential think tanks, KIPRED tells, the EU seems to be acting too carefully and too strictly on Kosovo.

Europe’s Migration Fears

Is this really so? And if yes, then why? The EU and some member state officials often quote two explanations in this context. The first argument is the current political and economic situation of Kosovo as described, which fuels the perception among citizens that migration is a sheer necessity.

With the picture of Kosovo painted in such a pessimistic way, one should make an effort to try to understand the positions of certain member states such as Germany or Sweden (which, by the way, actually did recognize Kosovo) and their fear of further migratory influxes.

Kosovo authorities often claim that many Kosovo passport holders living in these countries are in fact not Kosovars: during the war years, they are said to have sought asylum as Kosovars because it was easiest for them to migrate to such places. In the meantime, it is argued, these asylum-seeking citizens have created an artificial number of Kosovo diaspora and a negative reputation for the country.

The European Commission, and also several civil society representatives from Kosovo, reject this argument however, since it is now impossible to prove who really was, and who was only pretending to be a Kosovo Albanian back in the 1990s.

Immigration Arguments and a Multiple Influx

Germany and Sweden, along with Switzerland, host the largest numbers of immigrants from Kosovo. Prishtina tends to argue that “there are only 2 million Kosovars; 500,000 live abroad already, so everyone who wanted to leave has already left.” The government also argues that “if the EU opens the borders, and even if all 2 million people leave, it is nothing compared to all those migrants from Romania or Bulgaria.”

Nevertheless, these arguments seem plausible only to Kosovars. The EU member states affected have every right to reconsider their immigration policies. The influxes they receive on a daily basis do not stem only from Kosovo: with the present conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, the general situation regarding illegal migrants and asylum seekers coming to the EU has a clear potential to become aggravated.

However, the EU’s oft-cited dilemma is that if it wants to be a credible global player, it must not allow internal policies of its single member states to affect its common foreign policy.

Also, there is a common view, as stated by a former ICO official in Kosovo, who contends that visa liberalization would open the way to more illegal work despite the fact it would only allow citizens to travel up to 90 days. The Kosovo authorities respond that whoever extends their stay in the EU beyond 90 days can be easily identified and legally punished.

In line with that, the second argument for why the EU might be or should be wary about integrating Kosovo is the fact that it has no common stance on the country’s status. However, there is a powerful counterargument coming from the EU itself. As the 2009 Commission Kosovo Study emphasizes, “…the approach of diversity on recognition, but unity in engagement provides a constructive basis for progress. In line with Council conclusions, the EU can agree on measures to support Kosovo’s political and economic development without prejudice to EU Member States’ positions on status.”

As already mentioned above, the lack of a common standpoint is a frequent excuse that is not really substantial, since in practice, the non-recognizers are not the ones posing real obstacles to Kosovo’s citizens.

Director of Celnaja Jeton Zulfaj agrees with the current view in Prishtina. He does not believe that the real problem with Kosovo visa liberalization lies in the five non-recognizing EU member states.  Speaking for, Zulfaj cited the cases of Greece and Slovakia. Despite the fact that these two countries have failed to recognize Kosovo, Kosovo’s citizens actually tend to not encounter major difficulties visiting these states, provided they have a valid visa. Thus Greece and Slovakia, and occasionally also Spain, de facto recognize Kosovo passports.


Having all this in mind, let us return to the initial question: Should the EU be Kosovo’s John Wayne? The (mostly unilateral) efforts of the government to prove that Kosovo indeed deserves the roadmap are uncontested, even though at times they lack coordination or coherence.

On the other hand, Kosovo’s tough economic situation makes it very difficult for certain member states to consent to a launch of visa dialogue with Kosovo. However, that should not necessarily prevent the EU from speaking with a single voice in the framework of the common foreign policy, as it itself has already suggested, in the famous 2009 Kosovo Study.

The dialogue of Kosovo with Serbia might serve as a good start for both parties to finally normalize their relations and for Kosovo to exit its years-long isolation, and to forget the frustration over what it perceives as a massive injustice. The EU should give us any kind of criteria and tests it wants, argue both the authorities and civil society in Prishtina. But both are unequivocal that the EU needs to finally present Kosovo with the list. Kosovars can’t know what to do if there is no criteria, after all.

Put differently, if Kosovo was Natalie Wood from “The Searchers,” it would not want to be carried home by John Wayne. It would just request a small piece of paper with some directions on how to get there on its own.

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