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article imageKosovars feel trapped in EU visa 'cage'

By Nicolas GAUDICHET and Ismet HAJDARI (AFP)     Feb 14, 2019 in World

Kosovars are increasingly vexed by the massive amount of time, money and paperwork needed to obtain visas to enter the European Union -- a process not required of any of their Balkan neighbours.

"It is always a feeling like (you are) a criminal or like you did something wrong, like you are being investigated," said professional violinist Visar Kuci, 35, who had to cancel a concert in Germany last year after failing to get a visa in time.

While Western media tend to focus on the rocky relations between Kosovo and former war foe Serbia, it is the visa issue that weighs most heavily on the minds of many ordinary people.

For years Kosovars have clung to hope that the EU will soon abolish visas for three-month visits to the borderless Schengen Area, a privilege enjoyed by every other Western Balkan state.

But the day never seems to arrive.

In Pristina's cafes, friends trade intel on how long it takes to get an appointment, which consulates are most amenable, or any changes to the long lists of required documents.

For playwright Jeton Neziraj  being named "European of the Year" by the EU's delegati...
For playwright Jeton Neziraj, being named "European of the Year" by the EU's delegation in Pristina in 2018 was not enough to secure the paperwork for his theatre troupe
Armend NIMANI, AFP

In 2017, out of nearly 80,000 visa applications for travel in the Schengen area covering 26 European countries, 17,712 were rejected.

The applications, even if unsuccessful, cost around 100 euros ($110) -- a third of the average monthly salary in Kosovo.

For playwright Jeton Neziraj, being named "European of the Year" by the EU's delegation in Pristina in 2018 was not enough to secure the paperwork for his theatre troupe, who were unable to make it to a performance in Romania for visa reasons.

"They really want to humiliate you" to the point where "you say 'I don't want to apply anymore'," Neziraj said. It is like living in a "cage", he added.

- 'A bit of patience!' -

Kosovo, which ranks 20th from the bottom of the Henley passport index on freedom of travel, has yet to be recognised by scores of countries more than a decade after it declared independence from Serbia.

Part of the pain of the visa rejection is the feeling that the EU has failed to reward the country of 1.8 million for hitting certain benchmarks such as the signing of an unpopular deal to adjust its border with Montenegro.

Last September the European Parliament advised the abolition of the visa regime
Last September the European Parliament advised the abolition of the visa regime
Armend NIMANI, AFP

Brussels is also putting pressure on Pristina to normalise ties with Belgrade.

With a mix of irony and disillusionment, Kosovars point to a 2016 video of their former EU integration minister Bekim Collaku opening a bottle of champagne and announcing that the visa requirements would be abolished within a "few weeks".

"A bit of patience!" he says ecstatically.

Aulone Memeti, a 29-year-old education expert for a Pristina think-tank, says she sometimes opts out of European conferences because of the visa hassle.

She warns that the lack of progress is eroding trust in the European Union.

"The youth of Kosovo lost faith in our government (a long) time ago... They are losing faith even in the EU now," Memeti warned.

- 'Shame on you!' -

Last September the European Parliament advised the abolition of the visa regime, saying that Pristina met all the required conditions.

But the bloc's member states, which must lift their restrictions one by one, do not seem to be in any hurry.

In December the EU's diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini received some 20,000 messages from angry Kosovars on her Facebook wall.

"We've been isolated for years," wrote one commentator.

"Where are the human rights for Kosovo? Shame on you!" another wrote.

Neziraj shares the pessimism.

"They see us as potential refugees, as potential emigrants," he said of EU member states.

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