Serbs who stayed home

Observations on Balkans

Last week, Marija Serifovic, a young Serbian singer, triumphed at the Eurovision Song Contest in Helsinki in a spectacular international event that seemed to symbolise the new Europe's open borders. But for millions of young people across the Balkans, a visit to another European country is only a distant dream.

It was not always thus.

As citizens of the former Yugoslavia, my generation enjoyed a visa-free regime and western Europe was among the most popular destinations for young Yugoslavs. Before flying to London to study there, I had "Interrailed" to Britain on one of many European trips.

But today, most of the post-Milosevic generation in this part of the Balkans has never visited the countries of the European Union. According to a survey by the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE), 90 per cent of Serbian students said they had never travelled abroad. Many young Serbs don't even have a passport. Most of those who do travel are restricted to the region - Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

The situation is similar in Kosovo. For young Albanians and Serbs, travelling abroad is not one of the "things to do" this summer. Complicated visa regimes, long queues and a low probability of success are the main reasons. In addition, the difficulties in getting a visa are seen as a negative message from western European countries.

Travel restrictions on students leave them open to political manipulation, too. This is especially a problem in Serbia, where politicians during the last wars portrayed the west as "the enemy".

Even without the political aspects, the negative effect of isolation is evident. In Kosovo, where the west is widely seen as a "friend", visa restrictions have had a damaging psychological effect on young people. Unable to travel and meet contemporaries, their views on the world are being narrowed.

The International Crisis Group, in its report on the EU visa regime for the Western Balkans, warned that it was contributing to the ghettoisation of the region and undermining efforts in the Balkans for reform and stability.

Visa regimes affect not only travel but also work and study as well. According to the IAESTE, only 1 per cent of students in Serbia have been able to spend any part of their studies abroad. The unresolved status of Kosovo - still under UN administration - means that Kosovar students face additional difficulties. Last year, a young Kosovar graduate had to give up her place on a Masters programme in Monaco because of the visa procedure. She is now doing her degree in Pristina.

Last month, the European Union reached an agreement with some Balkan countries to ease the visa red tape. Under new regulations that come into force next January, the documentation required will be simplified for certain kinds of travellers, including students and journalists.

This summer, the international community will put into place the final piece of the jigsaw when it reaches agreement on the final status for Kosovo and opens the way to European integration for this part of the Balkans.

Meanwhile, young people across the Western Balkans will continue to stay close to home.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger