Too Early To Plan Visa-Free Vacations?

Bosnia has now fulfilled the last technical requirements for an EU visa-free regime, but despite promises, politics may enter the fray and the rush of asylum seekers from Serbia and Macedonia could get in the way, Anes Alic writes for ISN Security Watch.

With the appointment of several officials to key state government posts last week, the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina have fulfilled the remaining EU requirements for placement on the Schengen ‘white list.’

The EU will now have to decide whether to grant Bosnian citizens a visa-free regime this summer. A visa liberalization decision by the EU, however, will depend on a final assessment by member states as to whether Bosnia has indeed met all the necessary criteria.

So far, Bosnia has implemented more technical requirements than neighboring Serbia, which was granted an EU visa-free regime last July, along with Montenegro and Macedonia. At that time, Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo saw their visa liberalization bids rejected.

Immediately after fulfilling the requirements, Bosnian officials went public with the news, telling its citizens to start planning for “visa-free vacation,” and calling on EU officials to realize their promise of last year and place the country on the Schengen white list by this summer.

Indeed, Bosnian authorities should be credited for their efforts to implement the remaining requirements – which meant putting into action several reforms in only a few months; something for which the political will had not been found for the past four years.

This year, however, is an election year, with polls looming in October, and the authorities could suffer a loss of support if the country is not granted visa liberalization. If Bosnia is given visa-free travel to EU countries, the ruling coalition will surely use this as a campaign booster, and it would represent a rare achievement in the coalition’s four-year mandate.

From technical to political

Still, despite the fulfillment of the EU technical requirements, nothing is carved in stone, and other factors could influence the forthcoming report by the European Commission on the visa liberalization process to be presented in late April. And the road from now until October could be a rough seven months, politically and economically.

Milorad Dodik, the leader of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity, has ordered his ministers to boycott all media from the Bosniak and Bosnian Croat-dominated Federation entity, because of news reports critical of his government. Dodik has also threatened to withdraw Serb representatives in the state institutions over differences of opinion during the extradition case of Ejup Ganic, who was arrested in London on the basis of a Serbian warrant last month.

At the same time, Bosniak leader Sulejman Tihic has called for all major reform talk to be postponed until after the October elections. Bosnian Croat leader Dragan Covic followed this with his own calls for a separate, third entity for Croats if the country hopes to see his party sit down for more talks about reforming the constitution.

A member of the Bosnian parliamentary working commission tasked with coordinating the fulfillment the EU visa-free regime requirements told ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity that Bosnian leaders, with their ethno-nationalist and intolerant election campaigns, are not sending the EU a positive message.

“From the technical requirements, which are now fulfilled, we have moved to a political phase, and in this phase everything is possible. If the visa-free regime for Bosnian citizens becomes a political issue instead of a technical one, it is possible that the decision will be postponed for election period – meaning that the citizens could enjoy visa free travel beginning in 2011,” rather than this summer, as planned, he said.

Another possible setback could be the recent verdict handed down the European Court of Human Rights, saying that the Bosnian Constitution contains discriminatory and unlawful provisions.

Bosnian Jewish and Roma officials sued the country in 2006 with the simple goal of bringing attention to the fact that the Bosnian Constitution allows only the three main constituent ethnic groups – Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats – to run for the presidency or parliament.

The country’s constitution and electoral law states that only members of the three constituent ethnic groups are eligible to stand for election. The constitution also discriminates against Bosnian Serbs in the Federation entity and Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats in Republika Srpska.

The court’s December ruling obliges Bosnian officials to reform the constitution in order to enable other ethnic groups to put forth electoral candidates, otherwise elections will be considered invalid.

In order to appease the international community, the Bosnian government rapidly formed a commission to address this issue, pledging the necessary constitutional changes by October. Simultaneously, the Bosnian Election Commission announced that the elections could be postponed for couple of months in order to meet the demands. But there is little optimism that this will be accomplished, as talk about constitutional reform has stalemated for the past five years, and nationalist leaders have shown no indications that there political will has changed.

Executive director of the Bosnian branch of Transparency International (TI), Srdjan Blagovcanin, told ISN Security Watch that international community should recognize ongoing political radicalization for what it is: the Bosnian way of buying votes. Visa liberalization, he said, should not be further delayed because of this.

“But one thing is sure. EU officials and international community representatives present in Bosnia and Herzegovina cared more, and did more work on fulfilling the requirements than Bosnian authorities. Now the real question is whether Bosnian officials should be rewarded by the voters if visa-free travel is granted, or if they should be punished for being at least one year behind surrounding countries,” Blagovcanin said.

The asylum dilemma

Another issue that could pose a problem, and one over which the local authorities have no influence, is the rush of Serbian and Macedonian asylum seekers to EU countries since the institution of a visa-free regime for those western Balkan nations.

Several EU countries have complained about the jump in numbers of asylum seekers, mostly ethnic Albanians and Roma from Serbia and Macedonia, once visa liberalization was granted in December.

Belgium and Sweden have reported a sharp rise in asylum seekers from Macedonia and Serbia through several tour agencies offering asylum in the EU countries. Serbian and Macedonian media reported that asylum seekers are mostly young and unemployed, but also that their applications are mostly being rejected.

It was reported that 409 Macedonian citizens submitted asylum applications in Belgium, while over 400 Serbian citizens sought asylum in Belgium and more than 500 in Sweden.

Some EU country officials have already said that this issue could have an effect on the next phase of the visa liberalization process.

“We are currently in the midst of preparations for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania visa liberalization. If there is a negative position due to the ongoing massive arrivals in Belgium, EU member-states will be even more worried, which could lead to a slowdown in the procedure,” European Parliament visa liberalization rapporteur Tanja Fajon told an early March press conference.

In addition, the complicated procedure within the EU for approving the visa-free regime could delay Bosnia’s bid. This, despite the fact that when the EU initially rejected Bosnian and Albanian visa-free travel bids, they promised to abolish visa requirements for citizens of those two countries urgently, as soon as the technical requirements were met.

Since Bosnia has fulfilled those requirements, the EU has remained quite on the issue. And, in accordance with the current procedure, even if the April assessments show that Bosnia and Albania are ready for visa-free travel, there will not be enough time for the European Commission to draft, internally consult and adopt a legislative proposal by June, when Bosnia was hoping to be included on the list.

As such, it is possible that Bosnia will not be on the agenda during the 3-4 June EU Council of Ministers meeting, and that a decision will not be made until after the summer, with the next council session planned for October.


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