Both of my parents are from the area of Medveđa, Serbia. One of them hails from one of the highest villages in the municipality, a very beautiful area that is partially inhabited by Albanians.
My parents lived for decades in Prishtina, but some years ago they decided to follow their dream and find some nice place in the countryside, amid fields and forests, to settle once they grew older and retired.
Knowing the quality of the public transport they would have available, they needed a car when they moved to the countryside. They bought one in Prishtina, which of course came with Kosovar license plates. They were simply never allowed to register it in Serbia, or to own a different car.
The Agreement on Freedom of Movement allowed them to drive their car to Serbia, but nothing more. Even today, their Kosovar driving licenses cannot be notarized or exchanged in Serbia; it is simply forbidden. And of course, without a “valid” driving license, they could not buy (or import) a car.
So, whenever they drive to Serbia, my parents have been forced for years to remove their plates and put on temporary ones. After Kosovo decided to request the same for cars registered in Serbia, I could easily understand how much hardship that created for their owners, ordinary Serbs and Albanians with a life on both sides of the border. The new sticker regime is, by contrast, a huge improvement.
My parents have struggled for years with the non-recognition of various documents issued in Kosovo. Even the simplest thing, enjoying their own property in peace, where they keep bee hives and raise their garden, was not free of hurdles.
These policies also affected their two children. It is important for me to mention that I am forbidden to drive their car, simply because my driving license is Croatian. Apparently, if you try to enter Serbia with a Kosovar car, they will only let you in if your documents are also issued in Kosovo. Although I had heard rumors, I was still surprised one time when they turned me back at the border. Go figure.
Furthermore, my sister-in-law, nephew and niece, who are Japanese nationals, cannot even visit my parents in the countryside unless they fly through Belgrade. If any national from a third country flies into Prishtina, they cannot cross the border. The Serbian side sees this as illegally entering the country unless they have a recent stamp from a “recognized” border crossing on their passports.
In our case, that means that if they want to visit, they have to drive at least some extra five hours for no reason whatsoever. It goes without saying, that increases the costs of any visit and torments the entire family. If there is an explanation for that, I have never been able to figure it out.
I feel a strong need to emphasize that all we care about and want is for them to let us move freely and interact with our compatriots in both Kosovo and Serbia, either Albanians or Serbs, or, for that matter, with any other human being we want to have normal contacts with.
During the row with the license plates, the President of Serbia even threatened to block border crossings between Serbia and Kosovo, but only for Albanians, while letting Serbs through. He then rephrased his threat as an existing “great idea” that was floating around, and in the end, he never carried it out, but still. We were seriously concerned about this; the perspective of this threat ever coming true kept us thinking and worrying for hours.
Both Kosovar and Serbian citizens need to be free to move as they wish, register their cars where they wish and cross the border with the respective license plates. There should be no need to remove or cover anything and certainly there is no justification for any of the barriers for license plates, documents or human beings.
I cannot believe we are going through this even now, 22 years after the war ended, with Milosevic removed and dead for good. It really is a great shame to realize that his spirit lives on through the body and policies of Aleksandar Vučić and continues troubling our lives still to this day.
I should reemphasize that car plates are just one of the many obstacles that people from this border area face. It would be totally unrealistic to hope that Serbia will show any goodwill here. We know that unless Serbia is forced to, it will not recognize any Kosovar document, grant nationals from other countries their natural right to freely cross the border between the two countries or respect residents’ freedom of doing business.
That is one thing, but the worst is how Serbia applies a policy barely short of ethnic cleansing in the border region. It is not doing it by force, but through administrative acts in a process called “passivization.”
Thousands of ethnic Albanians have been erased from civil registers and thus lost the right to have any say in local affairs or own businesses that would ultimately benefit everyone in the municipality. As a result of this practice, they are not even allowed to receive their hard-earned pensions after decades of contributions.
Some relatives of mine were “passivized” after investing more than two million euros in Sijarina, a small spa town in Medveđa. The result was devastating for them, their entire investment and all their life savings are now blocked.
It has also hurt the region; visitors cannot use the facilities they built and locals in this poor area are deprived of job opportunities. All of this is the result of the nationalistic policies of a regime that is more preoccupied with ethno-centric megalomaniac plans than the wellbeing of its citizens.
The worst part is that no one seems to care. The issue with the license plates got attention, there was some international pressure and they found a compromise, even if just temporary. But when it comes to the root problem, no one can see any driving force that can make this change any time soon.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.