Kosovars feel trapped in European Union visa ‘cage’

Nicolas GAUDICHET and Ismet HAJDARI –
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. 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. 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. Brussels is also putting pressure on Pristina to normalise ties with Belgrade.
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. — AFP