Setting Kosovo free

When Europe gatekeeps freedom of movement

Thousands and thousands of young people—dressed in their summer outfits—walk up the road to the Germia national park in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. They are here to attend the Sunny Hill festival, organised and headlined by none other than their national pride: Dua Lipa. With a lineup that includes artists such as Diplo, J. Balvin, and Skepta, the festival brings international headlines to the Balkan nation—attention which in turn is used to raise awareness about one of its most defining issues. Upon entering the festival, a large billboard spells out the hashtag #SetMeFree.  

“We are the only ones who can’t freely cross borders without a visa,” the billboard reads. “Since 2018, Kosovo has met all 95 benchmarks for visa liberalisation set by the European Union, which is more than double the number of our neighbouring countries. And now, five years on, we should join the peaceful union to thrive economically and culturally.”

No one who enters the venue will have missed the sign, covered in the colours of the country’s flag, which mirror the European Union’s iconic yellow and blue. Yet the feeling of being “European” is a question that many Kosovars ask themselves. “I would love to feel European,”  says Fisnik Latifi, “but ever since I was born, everything around me shaped me to be this ‘Balkan’ identity.” The 27-year-old business advisor living in Pristina, has tried to apply for visas many times to no avail.  

Still, European symbolism plays a big role in Kosovo. “Its flag and the national coat of arms bear a strong resemblance to the flag of the EU,” explains Vjosa Musliu, an assistant professor of international relations at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, an internationally-oriented university in the Belgian capital. “Because of the EU’s contribution—in addition to the US—in making Kosovo an independent state, Kosovo declared its independence with Ode to Joy: the EU hymn. Its new national anthem is called Europe.” 

No freedom of movement

Since its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, Kosovo has established itself as the youngest country on the European continent. Nestled in between mountains in the western Balkans, it is now partially recognised as a sovereign nation. Still, the ongoing tensions with Serbia stand in the way of achieving full recognition—and membership into international organisations such as the EU, UN, and Nato.

Around 90% of the country is ethnically Albanian. Yet Serbia still holds its breakaway province in a tight grip, refusing to recognise Kosovo as an independent state. A Serbian minority of over 140,000 people—according to a 2011 census—and many historical sites remain in the former territory. 

During the era of Yugoslavia in the late 20th century, Kosovo was an autonomous province of Serbia with an ever-growing Albanian majority. However, after the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, former Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević set about to unite the Serbian people and reconquer the land by carrying out a genocide against the Kosovo Albanian people, resulting in thousands of dead or missing. The war ended in 1999, after Nato bombed Belgrade in order to force the massacres to stop. After that, Kosovo was put under UN administration until it declared independence almost a decade later.  

Commonly referred to as Serbia’s most important ally, Russia has continually established its influence over Kosovo’s fight for sovereignty. Russian media actively spreads false narratives to fuel anti-Kosovo rhetoric and incite conflict. Recently, alleged Russian spies were caught attempting to cross the border into Kosovo as well. A member of the UN security council, Russia stands in the way of Kosovo’s progress.

Recognition has become a major roadblock for Kosovo’s European dream. This year, the young nation submitted its application to the Council of Europe (CoE)—after which Kosovar prime minister Albin Kurti announced that they will apply for EU candidate status by the end of the year. At the same time, North Macedonia and Albania—its neighbours to the south and east—finally reached EU accession talks in the summer of 2022. This was possible after the North Macedonian state resolved a decades long dispute with Greece in 2019 and reconciled with Bulgaria in July 2022.

Yet a question predates Kosovo’s efforts to become part of European organisations such as the EU and the CoE: How can Kosovars reach their aspirations when they are still unable to travel through Europe without a visa? 

“Today, the most isolated travel document in the European continent is a passport of Kosovo,” says Vjosa Musliu, who is Kosovar Albanian. As a young country, Kosovo must fulfil the European Commission’s criteria before being granted the right to visa-free movement in the area. The process is called Schengen visa liberalisation. The criteria for Kosovo included settling a border dispute with Montenegro and reducing crime and corruption. Barely 10 years after its independence, the country proudly fulfilled all requirements—twice. In 2016, specifically in areas of combating corruption and improving rule of law and again in 2018, when a demarcation agreement with Montenegro was ratified to satisfy the criteria. 

Yet, the country is still stuck in limbo. All 27 EU members must vote to allow Kosovo’s visa regime to be lifted but five EU member states do not recognise the existence of Kosovo at all. School books in Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania, and Greece still show the area as a part of Serbia. Even countries such as France and the Netherlands—who do recognise Kosovo’s independence—continue to block the removal of visa restrictions. Both cite concerns over rule of law and corruption. They also appeal for a full normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. 

July 2022 marked the fourth anniversary of the European Commission confirming, for the second time, that Kosovo had fulfilled the Schengen criteria. Prime minister Kurti spoke about the process on social media. “We’re the most democratic and pro-EU country in the Western Balkans,” he wrote, “yet the most isolated. Our citizens’ hopes should be met with EU decisiveness and solidarity.” According to an IRI poll in 2020, 93% of respondents in Kosovo said they supported EU accession, the highest in the Balkan region.

A trip to Pleasantville

For many on the European continent, borders have become obsolete in the pursuit of knowledge, work, or even love. Yet many young Kosovars face insurmountable difficulties in doing any of the above outside their maternal country. Expensive fees for visa application procedures, insufficient financial means, and stressful communication with embassies have made it burdensome for many to achieve their dreams. 

In the absence of progress, Kosovo’s population continues to leave for the EU. Official reports state that 3.6% of its population has already emigrated by August 2022. Most of those seek out opportunities in Germany or Austria. In 2021, more than 42,000 left the small Balkan nation of less than two million people. Faced with visa difficulties, some Kosovars have paid illegal smugglers to take them into the EU, revealing the desperation of the situation. 

Vjosa Musliu stresses that if Kosovars actually had the freedom to travel in and out of the EU, the appeal of emigration would actually lessen. “They would defetishise the idea of the EU as a ‘Pleasantville’ that is nothing else but developed, full of economic and job opportunities, equal and progressive to all.” Referring to empirical findings from migration studies, she explains: “All the data shows that in the long run, migration numbers drop after visa liberalisation. In my opinion, it is more psychological than anything else. There is a certain sense of urgency when you live trapped in the middle of the continent and you cannot visit your grandchildren abroad or travel for a spontaneous weekend.”

Telling a story through travels

Home to one of Europe’s youngest populations, with more than half of the country under the age of 25, Kosovo is full of wanderlust. In the summer of last year, 23-year-old Njomza Berisha was accepted into a joint Master’s in the political science programme at the University of Salzburg in Austria. Berisha went through an arduous process in order to study, which involved paying  €2,000 in fees—out of her own pocket. She also had to take multiple trips to the nearest embassy that managed student visas for Austria, located in the neighbouring country’s capital, Skopje, in North Macedonia. 

“You had to pay for the stamps at the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Kosovo, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kosovo and then in the Austrian embassy in Pristina. It was so stressful. You didn’t know, even though you paid for the accommodation, whether you would get the visa or not,” says Berisha. 

Not only does the issue create obstacles for pursuing higher education, but also professional goals. Una Hajdari is an esteemed Kosovar journalist who often reports from the wider region. “Having an active visa in my passport is of the utmost importance,” she says. “Once a year or so, depending on my visa, I’d have to gather a filing cabinet’s worth of documents to prove that I had legitimate reasons to be allowed to travel. As someone who exclusively works for international outlets, it hurts to see my colleagues, with whom I am an equal in terms of work experience, commitment and skill, not have to ever think about this.” 

“While my colleagues from other countries breeze through passport controls, I always spend the longest time with the border agent checking our passports as they counted the exact number of days, from one entry stamp to another,” Hajdari adds, referring to the visa regulations that permit her to stay only 90 out of 180 days within the EU. “It’s this major, frustrating injustice that smacks you in the head and makes you feel inferior no matter how well you’ve done professionally or the successes you’ve racked up.”

While many Kosovars yearn to study and work abroad, others find it just as important to be simply able to travel and experience what the European continent has to offer. Musician Erion Palucaj has travelled to countries such as Belgium and Germany to compete in competitions as a part of his local choir in the city of Peja. “It actually meant a lot to me,” he says, “since I was able to visit some places that a lot of young people from Kosovo weren’t able to. It was a beautiful experience because it gave me the opportunity to get acquainted with European cultures, which is something we all deserve as a part of Europe ourselves.”

But travel is a two-way street. “People in other parts of Europe do not get much exposure to who we are,” Palucaj adds, “so that is why it’s important for us to travel and tell the world our story. I introduce others to the Kosovar culture and invite people to visit Kosovo and see what we really are.” The musician now has plans to travel until March of next year, when his Schengen visa expires. 

Setting a precedent

At the end of the annual meeting between EU and western Balkans leaders in Brussels this summer, the published conclusions stated that the EU would reaffirm “the urgency of making tangible progress in resolving outstanding bilateral and regional disputes, particularly the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.” This vague statement implicitly shows the lack of commitment to solving the issue, leaving unwanted space for doubt.

Unfortunately, there was no specific mention of visa liberalisation—just a call for Kosovo to continue engaging in Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, facilitated by the EU, to bring resolution to the Kosovo-Serbia conflict. “The process clearly has nothing to do with EU-related criteria, which Kosovo has met years ago,” says Agon Maliqi, a Kosovar Albanian policy analyst. “Therefore, Kosovo has been treated unfairly for domestic political reasons by individual member states.” 

Maliqi, who is the co-founder of the Pristina-based think tank sBunker, now looks hopefully to the future, eyes set on one of the EU’s most involved members—France. “I believe the French position is evolving and there is space for a change,” Maliqi says. “However, I do believe that France’s position on visa liberalisation, or Kosovo’s application to the Council of Europe, is informally conditioned with Kosovo’s approach to the dialogue with Serbia.” 

“Some are afraid that lifting the visa regime for Kosovo passport holders may be construed in Serbia as the EU recognising Kosovo’s independence,” Vjosa Musliu adds. “This has not only made such a long visa regime for Kosovars to remain in place. It has completely normalised such a regime inside the EU,” says Musliu. “Spare a few EU parliamentarians who have also been vocal in the media and inside the EU parliament, the overwhelming majority of EU technocrats I talk to see the caging of Kosovars as ‘a pity’, but nonetheless justified.”

“The EU’s approach to enlargement is based on the principle of conditionality,” says Una Hajdari. “If you do something right, like reform your judiciary, they’ll award you.” She continues:. “They’re prolonging the visa liberalisation process as much as they can, since it is the only thing they can offer Kosovo in return for complying with EU reforms and other demands from Brussels. If the EU gives up on the visa liberalisation issue too easily, they’re giving up on the only leverage they have over Kosovar politicians and the country as a whole.”

"Five EU member states do not recognise the existence of Kosovo at all."

"In the long run, migration numbers drop after visa liberalisation."

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