Generation in Isolation
For spoilt Western Europeans totting up their air miles as they plan their next foreign excursion, the idea of being denied the right to travel is a concept more remote than their most far-flung destination. But for the millions living in Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia-Montenegro, this restriction on what Westerners consider their fundamental freedom of movement forms a part of their daily reality. Despite firm assurances from the EU concerning eventual membership to the European Union, most notably at Thesaloniki in June 2003, the countries of the Western Balkans continue to be isolated from interaction with the citizens, culture, and democracies of Western Europe. Yet paradoxically these countries are required to prove that their states and economies function according to 'best-European practice' in order to progress along the road to membership. High visa fees, protracted waiting periods, overwhelming paperwork, and humiliating interviews constitute an insurmountable barrier to most travel for the inhabitants of these countries. During the spring of 2004, the Students Union of Serbia (SUS), together with a specialized polling agency, conducted an in-depth survey of student opinions. The results of their poll are alarming. The most striking finding was that seventy per cent of Serbian university students - the country's future leaders - have never set foot outside of Serbia-Montenegro. Additional data garnered from the poll is equally disturbing. An alarming 38% of those interviewed would not share a flat with an Albanian, 29% would not share a flat with a Croatian, and 24% would not want to share their apartment with a person of a different religion. The fact that most of these students have never set foot outside their home country must stand as a significant factor contributing to the rise of xenophobia among the Serbian academic elite. The survey also pointed to the fact that the majority of the student population, especially those studying outside the capital, have little contact with foreign nationals and no experience of cultures other than their own. "One of the reasons that people in Serbia stood up against the MiloSeviC regime was because of the isolation that his politics brought to our country" says Marija MitroviC, advisor to the SUS. "Ironically, after the fall of MiloSeviC in 2000, the European visa regime for citizens of Serbia-Montenegro became even stricter". This prolonged international isolation has potentially devastating consequences. Excluded from life outside of their home countries, young people start to lose faith in the prospect of a European future. Such disillusionment feeds in to the hands of nationalist and radical parties, such as the Serbian Radical Party led by Vojislav SeSelj. Crucially, the rise of such radical parties acts as a stumbling block to further progress to EU membership, thereby shooting the EU in the proverbial foot. "The main counter argument against relaxing the visa regime for people in Serbia-Montenegro is the fear that a great number of people will leave in the attempt to permanently settle in any EU country", says the Chairman of the SUS Goran BogunoviC. 'In the past decade, however, hundreds of thousands of people have already left Serbia Montenegro, most of them in times of rigid sanctions. The strict visa regime proved no difficulty for them', adds BogunoviC. However, given the current political climate amongst the old EU Member States towards their new colleagues from Central and Eastern Europe - let's not forget that the freedom of Slovene citizens to take up employment in the 'old EU' will be delayed for several years after accession - the SUS realized it would be fighting a losing battle if it attempted to persuade the EU to liberalize its visa regime for all citizens of the Western Balkans. Instead, the SUS has embarked on a concerted and concentrated campaign to try to liberalize the visa regime for students. The SUS proposal, which has already received the personal backing of the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus, envisages a low-cost fast-track visa process for registered students. In June 2004 a delegation of the SUS presented their case to the International Commission on the Balkans (ICB). The personal involvement of EU Commissioner Janez Potocnik as a member of the ICB increased the profile of the project and stirred much-needed media attention. More importantly, it also facilitated a trip to Brussels in autumn 2004 which allowed the SUS to present their case to senior EU policy-makers. The message from Brussels to the SUS was almost unanimous: students as one of the most vulnerable sections of society should be granted the opportunity to travel. Full understanding of this issue and encouragement for progress in this area was voiced by the most senior representatives of the European Commission, including the incoming Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn, and the visit attracted huge media attention inside Serbia-Montenegro. "Our experience in Brussels showed clearly that there is a political will to liberalize the visa regime for students. It was nevertheless frustrating for us to learn that the procedure to relax the EU visa policy may take up to two years according to official EU procedure", says MitroviC. However, buoyed up by their success in Brussels, the SUS is losing no haste in planning their next steps, among others to lobby Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to their cause. And given the strong regional ties that Ljubljana has with the Western Balkans states, our Slovene MEPs should be expecting a phone call any day now.