While most people in Europe and the Western Balkans can simply pack their suitcase, buy a ticket and grab their passport to go to their summer vacation destination of choice, citizens of Kosovo have never had that privilege.
Nearly two million people living in Europe’s youngest state have to endure the gruelling, time-consuming and expensive process of applying for a visa to the EU and the Schengen area instead.
Despite promises from Brussels, Kosovo remains the only country in continental Europe besides Russia and Belarus outside the EU’s visa-free regime, which allows those outside the bloc to enter the Schengen area for 90 days over a six-month period.
It is not just about the holidays — Kosovars wishing to study or receive medical care in western Europe can quickly find out that the requirements for the specific visas they need to have are well outside of their reach.
On a hill above the capital Prishtina, a crowd gathered in front of an agency tasked with accepting applications for the Swiss and UK embassies, braving the midday sun amidst a heatwave.
Leafing through their paperwork one last time to make sure everything was in order before handing it over to employees in uniform, some were clearly nervous about the outcome of their applications.
Others standing in line in sweltering heat were vocal in their exasperation.
“The fact that everyone else in Europe can just wake up and buy a ticket to anywhere without thinking twice about visas is extremely unfair,” Shkelzen Starabaja, 28, who is setting up a small business in Kosovo after working for the US military in Iraq and at the US Army-led Camp Bondsteel near Ferizaj/Uroševac told Euronews.
“It’s unjust and it’s become a very politicised issue, and there is no hope of us making any progress in that respect.”
“There are all kinds of prejudices at play here, and while Kosovo has a lot of international supporters there are a lot of people who have the wrong idea about what Kosovo and its people represent,” Starabaja said.
Visa-free travel is still a pipe dream
Kosovar visa woes are as old as the country itself.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia nearly a decade after the 1998-1999 conflict that led to a NATO intervention against the Belgrade regime of Slobodan Milošević.
The resulting Kumanovo Agreement ensured the withdrawal of Belgrade-controlled forces from the ethnic Albanian-majority province and allowed the UN to establish a civilian mission with NATO providing security, making Kosovo the only UN protectorate in Europe.
Since then, the international community led by the UN, the US and the European Union had invested an unprecedented amount of funding and effort to ensure the country quickly became a full-fledged democracy.
In 2007, Brussels established its biggest civilian mission in a non-member state, the EU Rule of Law Mission or EULEX, to assist the local judiciary and provide support for the police force.
However, since the 2008 declaration, Serbia — which sees its former province as a part of its territory — has actively tried to prevent Kosovo from becoming a full-fledged member of international organisations such as the UN and Interpol.
Additionally, Serbia has led an international de-recognition campaign in an attempt to deny Kosovo its status, with the visa liberalisation regime also affected by the dispute.
All other countries in the region successfully negotiated the visa liberalisation regime between 2009 and 2010.
For Kosovo, however, the right to free travel in the EU and the Schengen area remained a carrot that Brussels keeps waving in front of the Prishtina government’s nose, civil society analyst Donika Emini told Euronews.
“The visa issue is a source of extraordinary frustration,” Emini said.
“Look at the countries in the region — they all perform similarly to Kosovo in terms of rule of law and other parameters. Yet their citizens have forgotten what it’s like to even have to apply for a visa.”
The country was promised the coveted privilege several times since 2008 — most notably in 2014, after resolving a border dispute with Montenegro.
Earlier in June, the Council of the EU was said to be considering removing the obstacle as western countries scrambled to increase their influence in the region, fearing Russia might exploit the vacuum amid its war in Ukraine.
However, visa liberalisation — granted to the newest candidate countries, Moldova and Ukraine, in 2014 and 2017, respectively — once again remained a pipe dream for the Kosovars.
“Even I have to apply for visas regularly, as someone who has a residency in the UK, who has lived in the EU for over five years in both Germany and France — and every time I feel the fear of being rejected,” she explained.
“It has become such a big issue in Kosovo that people actively have a fear that they will not be granted the right to freedom of movement.”
Playing cat and mouse
There are plenty of complications that arise from different countries’ rules on issuing visas, often incurring additional costs and time lost on jumping through bureaucratic hoops.
Often, the obstacles are impossible to resolve, especially if someone wants to move to one of the EU member states.
Citizens of Kosovo who want to get an Austrian residency visa have to apply for it in Skopje, in North Macedonia — a two-hour drive from the Kosovo capital — although there is an Austrian embassy in Prishtina.
If they need a Belgian "D" visa, the embassy will kindly ask them to get it in Sofia — despite them also needing a visa to enter Bulgaria.
Some embassies, like the Italian or German ones, have tried their best to streamline the process, and the application can be handed in in Prishtina with no need for intermediaries.
Others, including the Swiss embassy, use an intermediary agency that takes in the application documents and delivers the visa if approved — but this can sometimes also prove to be complicated and costly.
Over the years, numerous private agencies popped up in the proximity of various embassies, charging a sum to help people prepare all the necessary documents, which include everything from bank statements, employment records or tax returns.
Some countries will not even consider Kosovars for entry. Despite the principle being that a Schengen visa should grant access to all 26 countries in the area, Spain has stipulated that the visas do not include entry into the country.
As a non-recognising country, Spain does not see Kosovar documents as valid, with the only way for its citizens to visit the country being by obtaining a residence card or another document in another EU member state.
Spain remains one of the staunchest non-recognisers of Kosovo’s independence, which many believe stems from domestic fears that regions with strong pro-independentist movements such as Catalonia might use the example of Kosovo as a justification for their own case.
On his most recent visit to the region, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told the gathered journalists in the Albanian capital Tirana that Madrid “cannot be in favour of Kosovo’s recognition” due to his belief that it is in violation of international law.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 2010 that Kosovo, in fact, did not violate any existing laws in its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008.
Of the six Western Balkan countries, Kosovo — together with Bosnia and Herzegovina — remains a potential candidate for EU membership, a label that can be best described as a paper medal doled out by Brussels in hopes of not further alienating the two.
The government in Prishtina has always had EU membership in its sights, while Kosovars are easily the most pro-bloc nations in the region, Emini said.
The country signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the bloc in 2015, but the membership negotiations — which turned out to be much more demanding compared to others — have stalled since.
“Kosovo faces significant challenges to its EU integration due to the issue of non-recognisers. It got the roadmap later than other countries in the Western Balkans and the roadmap for Kosovo differs significantly from those the rest of the region got,” Emini emphasised.
“There weren’t more benchmarks but there were more detailed benchmarks, because by the time Kosovo officially started its roadmap the EU learned from the mistakes it had made with other countries in the region.”
“In general, there is a lack of willingness on the side of the EU to do something in relation to Kosovo. There is nothing the EU can offer Kosovo right now, since there is no active EU process going on beyond the SAA, so it doesn’t want to give up the only thing it can grant — visa liberalisation — that easily,” she stated.
Kosovo's passport worse than Belarusian, Russian
According to the private travel freedom ranking tool, Henley Passport Index, Kosovo shares a lowly 90th place on the list of the world’s strongest passports, together with the likes of Chad, Bhutan and Cambodia.
Kosovo citizens can freely travel to some 53 countries out of a total of 193. Even some countries that are known for being among the least restrictive in the world, such as Mauritius or Georgia, require Kosovars to hold a visa or bar them from entry altogether.
In fact, it is theoretically easier for Kosovo nationals to travel to far-flung, exotic destinations. Visiting the fellow Balkan country of Bosnia — where some Kosovars have family or business connections — can prove to be nearly impossible, as the country is among the non-recognisers and requires a visa that is notoriously difficult to obtain.
In turn, this, coupled with a low standard of living, has limited Kosovars to travel to countries like neighbouring Albania or Turkey.
The closest European country on the Henley Index is Belarus in the 65th place, despite the former Soviet Union state and its strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko being hit by several sets of EU sanctions and other restrictions due to domestic turmoil and Minsk’s involvement in the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February.
And yet, Belarus citizens can freely enter 79 countries, including Ukraine — something that is impossible for Kosovars since Kyiv does not recognise Kosovo’s independence.
Those with Russian passports can enjoy free travel to a total of 117 countries and territories as of 1 July 2022, despite ever-increasing limitations placed against the country for its ongoing aggression against its western neighbour.
Furthermore, citizens of states with questionable rule of law and human rights records, such as Venezuela or Saudi Arabia, all fare better than people from Kosovo.
Being treated the same or worse as originating from one of these countries each time they want to travel abroad makes people feel stripped of their basic dignity, Emini pointed out.
“Even just getting an appointment at the embassy to submit a visa request can last for months, let alone the actual process of convincing the embassy to grant you a visa,” she explained.
“It is so frustrating. It stops citizens of one of the most pro-EU countries from seeing the EU in person.”
Serbia has second-class citizens, too
The issue does not affect only those who carry the Kosovo documents, however. There are some 90,000 ethnic Serbs who are Kosovo residents. They are, for all intents and purposes, treated the same, despite the fact that they have Serbian citizenship and the accompanying passports.
Unlike all other Serbian citizens — including those who live abroad — who enjoy the privileges of unfettered travel to the EU since December 2010, the ethnic Serbs residing in Kosovo are issued passports by a special state-run department.
The passports all look the same. But for those from Kosovo, a remark stating the document was issued by the department of the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs called the “Coordination Directorate” immediately flags the carrier as a person not eligible for visa-free entry at border crossings throughout the bloc.
The condition made by Brussels as Serbia was negotiating its visa liberalisation regime in 2009 has created a rift, with Serbian nationals living in Kosovo made to feel like second-class citizens, Milica Andrić Rakić, Project Manager in the North Mitrovica-based NGO, New Social Initiative, told Euronews.
It has also created a myriad of other problems, such as forcing those living in North Mitrovica — some 42 kilometres from Prishtina — to travel to Belgrade instead, as embassies often treat those carrying the Coordination Directorate passports as any other Serbian citizen despite the clear legal distinction.
Employees at other embassies will simply be left confused as to why a Serbian passport holder would want a visa to begin with.
“The fact is that if you call the embassy of a country that isn’t familiar with this procedure and ask them if you should apply for a visa in Prishtina or in Belgrade, the won’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about,” Andrić-Rakić said.
“Greece, that hasn’t recognised Kosovo, will issue a visa in that subgroup of Serbian passports while Germany won’t.”
Meanwhile, the Serbian authorities have made any possible change of residence for those with the Coordination Directorate documents almost impossible in fears that Brussels might revoke the visa-free arrangement, she explained.
“If someone from Kragujevac (in central Serbia) were to change their place of residence to say Belgrade, that procedure only lasts one day,” Andrić-Rakić said.
“If you’re changing your residency from some place in Kosovo to Belgrade, you have to have a legitimate reason to do so and the procedure can last for months and police check up on them regularly.”
All of this is grounds for a lawsuit, as it violates the constitutional rights of a group of Serbian citizens, Andrić-Rakić stated. But after representatives of the civil society reached out to the Serbian Constitutional Court in hopes of filing a complaint, they realised that the procedure to get the case in front of the court’s judge might take years, if not decades.
“They made it clear to us that the case first needs to be heard in a basic court, and go through all the levels of the judiciary until it gets heard in the Constitutional Court. No average citizen has the time and money to deal with that for years and take it to the Constitutional Court,” she said.
“If it ever did get to the Constitutional Court, Serbia would have serious problems. But no one has done it yet.”
Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue a ‘convenient excuse’
While many expected that the Brussels-facilitated Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue that began in 2011 — designed to decrease tensions and resolve bilateral issues — would also help Kosovo attain visa-free travel once and for all, the process was mired in technical discussions resulting in almost-constant disagreements between the two sides.
In recent years, the meetings meant to wrap up the final disputed issue that came out of the Yugoslav disintegration wars have been increasingly few and far between, and no progress has been made, Igor Bandović, Director of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, told Euronews.
“Ten years later, it sometimes seems as if things are just as bad as they were when the dialogue started. There are tensions, there is a lack of understanding between Belgrade and Prishtina,” he said.
Personal animosities and vastly different approaches to doing politics have led to a situation where they have barely had any meetings in person ever since Albin Kurti was elected Prime Minister of Kosovo in 2020.
His counterpart in the negotiations, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has also maintained a hardline stance.
After the most recent rise in tensions over a formal decision made in Prishtina that would force ethnic Serbs in the north of Kosovo to register their vehicles in the country, Vučić stated in late July that Serbia “will fight and will win” in its continued bid to bring its former province back into the fold.
In a follow-up interview for the state public broadcaster RTS on 2 August, Vučić said that he was ready to go to Brussels for another round of talks but that “he doesn’t expect anything”.
“Anyone who thinks it's possible to maintain peace with Albin Kurti is wrong,” Vučić said.
“The one meeting they had was wasted on arguing,” Bandović explained. “Essentially, Kurti does not accept the agreements signed by previous governments in their entirety.”
“Kurti’s position is that Kosovo is an independent country that is merely trying to resolve outstanding technical issues that exist with Serbia, whereas Serbia does not only not see Kosovo as an independent country — it will allow Kosovo to have everything apart from actual sovereignty,” he explained.
But the Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue has been nothing more than a useful excuse for EU leaders to do nothing about visa-free travel for Kosovo, Bandović emphasised.
“Visa liberalisation has nothing to do with the dialogue between Prishtina and Belgrade,” he said. “The lack of visa liberalisation for Kosovo is a consequence of the EU practically giving up on its enlargement plans in the Balkans.”
“So we don’t even know if we have a European integration process anymore, or whether it is propelled by some inertia but without anything tangible being done on the ground.”
Meanwhile, the high-level bickering serves as little more than background noise for those hopeful to travel to Europe.
In the crowd in front of the Prishtina agency, the 19-year-old student Leonit Muja — who was barely old enough to remember his country’s declaration of independence — was among those clutching the stacks of documents.
He had travelled to the Schengen area every couple of months in recent times, but he never stayed longer than one week, Muja said.
“I can’t understand why it’s so bad to allow people to travel for a week or two,” he told Euronews.
“It’s unfair that we are the only ones in all of Europe who can’t travel freely.”