Me and Matej were pretty much stuck together until the next flight out of the Schengen Zone; in this instance to Istanbul, one of the few places I, as a Kosovar passport holder, can travel to without a visa.
Matej was a gentle soul with a great interest in history. He was also a police officer (incidentally, Matej is not his real name), whose job usually comprises of escorting ruthless criminals passing through Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport. Today, he was escorting me.
As if being stuck and supervised in an airport terminal wasn’t enough of a punishment, I also had to provide an ethnic Albanian’s perspective on the events that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia to the genuinely curious Matej. He was somewhat surprised at how well I could elaborate my thoughts. Clearly we had a more articulate discussion than most of the conversations he enters into at work.
Our story had begun a few hours earlier when, after 20 minutes of deliberations, the Czech Immigration Police told me that I wouldn’t be leaving on the earliest flight of the day from Vaclav Havel to Dusseldorf. What followed was not so much a conversation; merely a routine signature requested on my behalf on a piece of paper that read: ‘Refused Border Crossing. Reason being: Person is missing a valid visa.’
I was attempting to travel to the Dominican Republic on business and my flight briefly passed through Dusseldorf on its way to Puerto Plata. I had a valid visa for the Dominican Republic but my explanations that I only had a short transit in Dusseldorf and that I had proof of a complete booked trip to my final destination (including a return flight) made no difference. The European Border bureaucrats did not want to listen, or care about what proof I had to show unless I could produce a Schengen visa, apparently a requirement for a 20 minute layover in the transit section of Dusseldorf International Airport.
They decided to let me roam around in the terminal of the airport as I waited for my flight to Istanbul, which I had to buy a ticket for. It was at this point I was assigned to be escorted by Matej. Whilst under his supervision, he told me sympathetically: “Listen Dite, in Kosovo you guys are doing good, just keep developing the economy.” His sentence struck a chord with me, and it led me to write this article.
As a recent MBA graduate from the Stuart School of Business in Chicago and a scholar of the USAID funded TLP program, I set out to do exactly what the program aimed to do — ‘create a transformation’ once back in my home country of Kosovo.
I co-founded a business, and with my partners managed to get it up and standing remotely. But business is based on relationships, and strong relationships rely mostly on trust; meeting people face to face, shaking hands and signing contracts. That was the main purpose of my attempted trip to the Dominican Republic.
When I heard Matej saying “develop the economy,” I remembered how many times I heard the same phrase during my USAID funded program: “Let’s develop the economy!” It seems as though every single European bureaucrat who visits Kosovo also has this phrase in their vocabulary.
One thing that they are missing though is this: How do we develop an economy when we are completely isolated? Business does not work in an ad-hoc way; you need trust, meetings and physical access to the people you are dealing with.
Due to Kosovo’s geographical location, it makes sense to join the business world of Europe. There are no such opportunities in Africa, and as lucrative as markets like China and India are, Kosovo businesses have no access to them. We can’t simply build an economy in Kosovo, create jobs and hire people without having access to Europe.
The visa regime as we know it is very inefficient. I was a European resident for four years during my studies and have had numerous short-visit business and tourist visas for several European countries; the rules of which were completely respected. However, this does not guarantee me any sort of leniency when applying for a new visa.
I have another business opportunity that needs me to physically be in the Czech Republic in late November. As I was telling our partners — I can not confirm my attendance, because it relies on the embassy’s processing methods and schedules. It usually takes a whole month just to get an appointment and even then nothing can be taken for granted. Even if you get a visa, you can be denied boarding at any point of your travel.
The business world, especially the one we deal in — high tech, does not operate with two months advance notice. Things move fast and you have to be there quickly when an opportunity presents itself, or when a software crisis needs to be managed.
Meetings and exchanges of information amongst Kosovar business people, entrepreneurs and software developers, has revealed that my case is not an isolated incident. There have been several cases where international trade projects were placed on hold due to visa issues.
I understand that the European authorities do not trust us collectively, and they have no interest in building individual trusting mechanisms. Therefore, instead of the repetitive slogans from EU diplomats telling us to ‘develop economically,’ how about we see some real decisions being made? That would level the playing field and give us equal and competitive access to Europe. The immensely talented youth of Kosovo has on its shoulders great responsibilities and amazing hoops to jump through, while we have few or no friends in the international sphere. My main concern is: Are we being set up for failure, by people who know better?
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.