Will holders of „second class“ travel documents, who cannot obtain Kosovo ones, finally get good news?

PHOTO: KoSSev

Serbian citizens from Kosovo with passports issued by the Coordination Administration of the Republic of Serbia – the only Europeans who still need a visa to travel to the Schengen zone – are on the verge of being included in the visa-free regime. This week, the European Parliament voted in favor of visa liberalization for these passport holders. The decision now must be confirmed by the Council of Ministers. The Serbian public welcomed the move, while the Kosovo government and Albanians strongly objected to it.

On Tuesday, by adopting Matjaž Nemec’s report, the European Parliament voted for visa liberalization for citizens of Kosovo who hold Serbian passports.

A total of 406 MPs voted for this decision out of 597, while 97 were against and 94 abstained.

The decision now needs to be confirmed by the Council of Ministers of the European Union by a qualified majority vote and will come into force after it is published in the Official Gazette. It is expected that this will happen in mid-May.

How did the holders of these passports become exempt from the visa-free regime?

Citizens of Serbia with regular Serbian passports, issued by the Serbian MIA, have been traveling without visas for almost 15 years, since December 2009.

As part of the then dialogue between Serbia and the European Union on visa liberalization, just before it came into effect, the Coordination Administration was formed.

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PHOTO: Ilustracija/pasoš

As a condition before recommending visa liberalization for passport holders of the Republic of Serbia, the European Commission declared that the police administrations from Kosovo (Kosovska Mitrovica, Pristina, Prizren…), which were relocated, should no longer issue passports to citizens of Serbia with residence in Kosovo, and that this competence should be redirected to this body.

„For persons residing in Kosovo as defined by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 of June 10, 1999 (otherwise known as UNSC Resolution 1244) and persons with a certificate of citizenship issued on the territory of Kosovo (UNSCR 1244), the Coordination Administration in Belgrade will be responsible for accepting requests for issuing passports“, states point 4 of UN (1244/2009) – November 30th, 2009.

At the same time, Serbia was asked to tighten the security procedures for issuing passports that are officially exempt from the visa-free regime, due to EC’s fears of illegal migration from Kosovo.

This increased the number of Albanians from Kosovo who have been applying for Serbian passports for years now.

Eight years later (2017), the European Commission proposed that visa liberalization be made possible for holders of passports issued by the Kosovo Ministry of Interior. The proposal finally reached the European Parliament in April of last year, when voting on the issue took place. Kosovo passport holders have been traveling without visas since the beginning of this year.

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PHOTO: KoSSev

Before and after the decision entered into force, several reports were published that indicated that members of the Serbian communities in Kosovo were increasingly becoming interested in obtaining Kosovo passports.

According to the data of the Kosovo Police, by December 31, 2023, a total of 6,310 people who also hold Serbian citizenship submitted a request for a Kosovo passport.

On the other hand, there has been a decrease in the number of holders of the Coordination Administration passport.

Although there is no confirmed precise data on the updated number of holders of these passports, according to the report of the NGO „Aktiv“, between August 16, 2007, and June 3, 2016 – the Coordination Administration issued a total of 76,807 passports.

This week’s latest data on the number of holders of such passports showed a drastic drop. After the report was adopted on Monday, Matjaž Nemec specified that 18,000 people now hold this passport.

A Slovenian member of the European Parliament, Matjaž Nemec, was appointed as the rapporteur for the abolition of visas for passports issued by the Republic of Serbia for citizens in Kosovo at the beginning of March.

It is widely known that since 2009, when they became holders of ‘second class’ passports, Kosovo Serbs, as well as members of other communities who have Serbian documents, have been finding different ways to obtain visa-free Serbian passports – mostly by changing their residences in Kosovo to a municipality in Serbia.

Who was left between these two systems?

Since the visa liberalization for the Kosovo passport entered into force, the only citizens who did not have a chance to obtain a visa-free passport are those citizens who, on the one hand, still possess the passports of the Coordination Administration, who „did not sort this out“ or did not want to change their places of residence. At the same time, they did not meet the conditions for obtaining Kosovo documents and passports.

Due to the non-recognition of Serbian documents from the registers of deaths, births, and marriages (in the period after 1999), as well as court decisions on divorce or decisions of other Serbian institutions, including the Social Services Department, a significant number of Serbs, as well as other members of non-majority communities in Kosovo, are still unable to obtain Kosovo documents.

For these citizens, the only option is this Serbian passport issued by the Coordination Administration. As a result, they remain the only group that is not covered by visa liberalization from any system.

Nemec pointed out this issue again two days ago, just before the start of voting for his report in the European Parliament:

„This decision could improve the lives of Serbs because 18,000 people have special passports and they are the last group of citizens in the Western Balkans who do not have visa liberalization and there is no justification for such a thing.“

Polarization

After the problem was recognized by the European Commission, with the explanation that there is no longer any danger of illegal migration from Kosovo, and because they had previously approved the visa-free regime for Kosovo passports, in November they proposed that the passports for the remaining citizens in Kosovo issued by Serbia are also included in the visa-free regime.

Pristina objected and even initiated measures to prevent it, including a letter sent by Albanian non-governmental organizations, lobbying on the part of Kosovo authorities, as well as through the activities of the chief negotiator himself.

For months, Besnik Bislimi headed activities to prevent the visa liberalization of these passports. Immediately after the announcement of the European Commission’s proposal to abolish visas for citizens residing in Kosovo who hold Serbian passports, Bislimi turned to the European Union in November of last year with a request to reconsider the proposal, which „contains several violations“.

At that time, Albanian NGOs from Kosovo also wrote to the European Commission to withdraw that proposal.

For the Kosovo government and a vocal part of the Albanian intellectual elite, it was an „illegal“ and „unjust“ decision on „illegal passports“. In short:

„Visa liberalization for illegal passports violates the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo“ – the chief negotiator Besnik Bislimi has repeatedly emphasized, warning that it would „harm the integration processes“.

At the time, he boasted that from August to October 2023, more than 530 Serbs obtained Kosovo passports.

They described as „illegal“ the fact that the passport of the Coordination Administration lists residences in Kosovo as residences in the Republic of Serbia.

Contrary to this, as per an agreement between Belgrade and Pristina on IDs, from September 2022, the Serbian identity card issued by the police administrations of towns in Kosovo can be used to travel freely in Kosovo; as well as at crossings in the north and some crossings south of the Ibar, even though the mentioned agreement stated that this should apply at all crossings, as announced by Belgrade.

A group of Serbian NGOs from Kosovo then shared their disappointment and disagreement with the statement of Albanian NGOs, which further polarized the two sides.

„Organizations that have spent almost a decade raising voices against the unfair isolation of Kosovo citizens, essentially ask the same,“ the Serbian NGOs specified.

“Initiatives, such as these, coming from organizations that have spent almost a decade raising voices against the unfair isolation of Kosovo citizens, essentially ask the same for a very small number of people who either wish to keep their displacement status in Serbia or cannot obtain Kosovo citizenship.”

As one of the arguments against the visa liberalization of these Serbian passports, Albanian NGOs claimed that it would “encourage criminal structures in the north to continue with threats and intimidation of Serbs who intend to integrate.“

They received the following response from their Serbian colleagues:

“Integration is a much more nuanced and sensitive process and requires trust-building measures and support from different layers of society. Unfortunately, the reaction of dozens of NGOs shows that the EC’s criticism of the Government of Kosovo and its failure to communicate to the Kosovo Serb community is starting to apply to civil society as well.”

“No more Kosovo Serbs will be integrated if they are equipped with Kosovo passports than the number that already have Kosovo citizenship. This is because a passport cannot be obtained without an ID card and proof of citizenship. In other words, a person who gets a new passport is already equipped with citizenship and is thus already integrated.”

The letter sent to the European Commission was also criticized by the deputy to Kosovo Ombudsperson, Srdjan Sentić, who said that it encourages discrimination.

Nataša Kandić from the Fund for Humanitarian Law said that the reaction of these organizations was „disproportionate and lacked sensitivity towards a solution that eliminates discrimination on any basis“, but also that from the point of view of sovereignty, the residences listed in these passports are „unacceptable“.

The two polarized, not only by their stances, but along ethnic lines as well, NGO groups exchanged public letters, after which they even met, but remained irreconcilable.

The extent to which opinions are polarized is shown by the statement of the executive director of the Press Council of Kosovo, Imer Mushkolaj, after this week’s news about the MEPs voting in favor of the visa liberalization of the Coordination Administration passports.

„The European Parliament’s decision to grant visa liberalization for holders of Serbian passports living in Kosovo is a scandalous and dangerous precedent,“ he said.

According to him, by using such passports, „Belgrade considers Kosovo part of Serbia“, while he also claims that Serbs can „easily“ take Kosovo passports.

„It violates the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo,“ Besnik Bislimi repeated this week as well, having previously spoken to the mediator in the Brussels dialogue, Miroslav Lajčak.

For a part of the public, this strong resistance of the Kosovo Albanian public is seen as the reason why the issue of the passports of the Coordination Administration within the European structures has dragged on for so long.

A wrong has been righted, but not politicization

As expected, the Serbs welcomed the decision as they consider the passing of the report on the visa-free regime for passport holders of the Coordination Administration to be one of the most welcome news in the last few years.

„This decision opens the way to freedom of movement in the Schengen countries for those citizens of Serbia who have this type of passport, and who are the only ones in Europe who need visas for travel,“ said Dragiša Mijačić, Coordinator for NCEU Working Group on Chapter 35.

While Pristina has been warning for months that this is a blow to the normalization of relations and the integration of Serbs into Kosovo society, and that Kosovo’s sovereignty is being violated, Serbian politicians are now using the opportunity to send political messages about the vulnerability of Kosovo Serbs, pointing a finger at Pristina.

The Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivica Dačić, says that a wrong has finally been righted.

„Our citizens who remained in Kosovo cannot be punished because they did not leave the territory of Kosovo or did not take illegal Kosovo documents because the issue of status is absolutely not internationally recognized. In this regard, this is the righting of a wrong that has been going on for ten years, because our citizens who had passports issued by the Coordinating Administration for Kosovo and Metohija did not have the right to visa liberalization as other citizens of Serbia had.“

„Serbs from Štrpce to Leposavić, as people living in the heart of Europe, are not second-class citizens and have the right to freedom of movement, a fundamental asset of the EU. Today’s victory is an important message that, despite all the obstacles, we will fight tirelessly to make the life of our people in Kosovo worthy of a man in the 21st century!“, said the head of the Kosovo Office, Petar Petković.

Matjaž Nemec, rapporteur of the EP, revealed that he is aware that both Pristina and Belgrade want to politicize this „technical issue“:

„This is not a political, but a technical issue, and it is not a solution for the normalization of relations between the two parties.“

Could a problem arise at the finale?

While waiting for the meeting of the Council of Ministers, the citizens with Coordination Administration passports are wondering: Nothing is done until it is done. Can anything go wrong?

Dragiša Mijačić said he does not expect any problems with the next step, because the European Council has already given its support to the issue.

Therefore, he predicts that the entire process will be completed within the next few months and that citizens from Kosovo who hold Serbian passports will be able to travel freely to the Schengen countries from July 1 at the latest.

Nemec also expects this issue to be resolved by summer.

„When the EP confirms the decision, the implementation of the decision will then take place, and then it is the turn of the European Commission. We are in contact with them and they say that there is a strong desire to implement the decision immediately. We have the possibility to solve a very important issue for the Serbs living in Kosovo by the beginning of the summer,“ he said earlier this month.

Europe is obliged to fix the problem it has created itself, and to do so as soon as possible



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