Bosnian and many European officials have condemned the European Commission’s proposed visa-liberalization plan for the Balkans as discriminatory against Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and potentially destabilizing for entire region.
“Bosnia and Herzegovina remains on the black list. People are in the ghetto because of visas,” reads the top news headline in the Mostar daily Dnevni List. “Bosniaks are isolated,” read the title of a front-page article in Sarajevo daily San on Thursday.
The visa-liberalization program for the Western Balkans, which was presented at a press conference on Wednesday, recommends a visa-free regime for Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, but excludes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. This plan has triggered strong and mixed reactions both in the region and across Europe.
Citizens and officials in Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia welcomed the announcement. Yet the plan has been harshly criticized by citizens of Bosnia and Kosovo as well as by some European politicians and human rights activists.
“The visa policy for the successor states of the former Yugoslavia risks to create two classes of citizens in South Eastern Europe, based on ethnicity,” reads a petition which started circling across Europe on Wednesday afternoon, and which has so far been signed by a veteran German diplomat and politician and former High representative to Bosnia, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, European parliamentary deputies Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Doris Pack, human rights activist Tilman Zülch, and scores of others.
Dialogue on visas started with Western Balkans countries in 2006, while the visa liberalization process was launched in 2008. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania are deemed to have not fulfilled the necessary conditions but could hope to join the rest of the region by mid-2010 if all requirements are fulfilled, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said at the press conference.
While visa-liberalization to Macedonia and Montenegro was not questioned, some observers feel that the EU’s decision to offer a visa-free regime to Serbia was largely motivated by political reasons.
In a recent paper, Tobias Heider of the Free University Berlin said: “The Commission’s recommendation itself is politically motivated because the assessment of Serbia’s readiness follows a foreign policy rationale. EU Foreign Affairs Ministers communicated to Serbia prior to the last Parliamentary elections in May 2008 that they will reward a pro-European vote with a visa free regime. This incentive was, for foreign policy reasons, the right thing to do.”
“For Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Commission argues that many technical requirements have not been met so far. Experts agree that in legislative, administrative and technical terms the gap between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina is rather narrow,” Heider wrote.
Furthermore, leaving Bosnia out of the process creates a dangerous precedent and potential long-term destabilizing effect for all of Europe, some experts and officials have suggested. Since most Bosnian Croats already have Croatian passports and since Bosnian Serbs can legally obtain Serbian passports – thanks to a controversial law Serbia adopted in the middle of visa-free negotiations – the no-visa regime would essentially affect only Bosniaks.
“The draft recommendation on visa liberalization will increase tensions within the fragile post-war societies as the plans of the Commission will formalize ethnic divisions and provide them with dubious legitimacy,” reads the international petition.
“Only a part of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina will profit from the new travel regime. … Restrictions thus remain in place for the Bosniak people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. De facto, ethnic criteria will decide whether a citizen is able to travel freely to the EU,” it added.
“For the first time since 1945 one non-Christian community is being isolated from Europe because of its religious belonging. Once this group was European Jews, now it is Muslims from Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said Tilman Zulch, head of an independent human rights organization Society for Threatened Peoples told local media.
EU Enlargement and Justice and Home Affairs Commissioners Olli Rehn and Jacques Barrot, who have presented the recommendations in Brussels on Wednesday, downplayed the decision for the Bosnian public.
“We believe that Bosnia and Herzegovina will soon catch up with the neighbors,” they said in an article in the Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz.
Dnevni Avaz strongly criticized Bosnian and especially Bosniak leaders for remaining silent and accepting the European Commission’s decision.