serbia hopes for visa-free regime with eu by 2009
by Davor Konjikusic
Many Serbian citizens may find it easier to travel to EU-member states starting in 2009, after all laws are adopted and the Union approves their implementation.
The country -- along with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro -- signed a visa facilitation agreement with the EU in September. The accord reduces visa fees and simplifies the rules for granting visas to certain groups of people -- state officials, students, academics and business travelers. It will become effective as of January 1st, 2008.
In return, the countries pledged to demonstrate strengthened rule of law, step up efforts against organised crime and corruption, and increase administrative capacity regarding border control and the security of documents.
Serbia is expected to adopt legislation covering these responsibilities by the end of the month. "I do expect that our citizens will travel without visas in the second half of 2009," said Drazen Maravic, the chief of the interior ministry's Bureau for European Integration.
After the laws are adopted and put into place, the European Commission (EC) will carefully monitor their implementation, as well as that of the visa facilitation agreement and the deal on re-admission.
On Monday (October 29th), the interior ministry said that since 2003, the country has received more than 23,000 requests for re-admission of citizens living illegally in EU-member countries. Officials said they do not know how high the total numbers will go, but they urged parliament to ratify the agreement.
The EC will also be keeping a watchful eye on Serbia's fight against corruption and organised crime. According to the European Parliament (EP), which released a report on Serbia and its EU bid last week, "corruption, particularly in the police and the judiciary, remains a serious problem."
Visas are a key issue across the Balkans, and EU officials have indicated that they see it as a priority as well. "I particularly agree on the importance granted to visa facilitation and on the call for progress next on visa liberalisation. I am confident that the visa facilitation and re-admission agreements will enter into force in January 2008 as planned," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told the EP last week.
The Citizens' Pact for Southeast Europe, a network of regional NGOs and municipalities, held a workshop in Novi Sad last month to discuss the prospects. Representatives from the five countries that signed the visa facilitation agreement in September attended. Talks focused on co-operation among the countries to negotiate a roadmap for accelerating the visa liberalisation process.
According to the Citizen's Pact, there is a "certainty that ghettos will be created within the region of Southeast Europe" if the existing regimes remain equally strict. The enlarged EU now includes Bulgaria and Romania, and may soon expand to Croatia. But several countries -- Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia -- are unlikely to join in the near future.
Studies show that around two-thirds of all students in Serbia have not travelled outside the country -- the main obstacle being the need to obtain a visa.