In-depth | BiH

Mission impossible to get to Bosnia and Herzegovina

By - 15.11.2016

Kosovo and BiH still at odds over visa regime.

Waiting months and enduring long and often complicated procedures of obtaining a visa to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) keeps many Kosovars away from this country, even for business opportunities.

While many entrepreneurs have reported difficulties to the Kosovo chamber of commerce, others from both countries have already given up on the other country’s market. On an individual level, numerous business and career opportunities are being missed due to the visa regime between BiH and Kosovo.

BiH remains the only former Yugoslavian country — aside from Serbia — that still does not recognize Kosovo, due to opposition from the Serb-dominated entity of BiH, Republika Srpska.

In 2004, BiH had introduced a special travel regime for Kosovars, which involved obtaining special permission to travel using UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) identity papers. However after Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 — and the last UNMIK passports expired two years later — travel for BiH became significantly harder as BiH did not immediately recognize Kosovo-issued documents; this changed in March 2012 but the procedures to obtain a visa are often very complicated and visas are not stamped in a passport but issued as a separate paper.

For me, Bosnia seems like a forbidden land,” said Arber Selmani, a freelance journalist from Prishtina, who has twice been prevented from traveling to BiH due to visa issues.

“I told them, I am going for a training event and it really does not make sense that the visa would be issued after the event takes place.”

Arber Selmani

Sitting in a bar in the center of Prishtina, the 24-year-old recalled the “bureaucratic procedures” he went through while trying to obtain the Bosnian visa, first in 2009 and again in 2015, when his application was rejected.

In 2009, only a year after Kosovo proclaimed its independence, Selmani was unable to obtain the visa in time to join an inter-ethnic initiative of young people of the Western Balkans called “Balkans, Let’s Get Up,” taking place in Sarajevo.

“I thought: Finally, I am travelling to a country that has a very similar history to that of Kosovo, a post-war country,” he said, explaining that the visa application process complicated his plan as it required a certificate of employment, which as an unemployed economics student he did not possess.

Despite eventually getting a positive response to the visa application, long complications meant that it wasn’t received until five days after the gathering of the youth initiative took place.

“I told them, I am going for a training event and it really does not make sense that the visa would be issued after the event takes place,” he said.

Besides the BiH visa regime, Kosovars are also the only citizens in the Western Balkans deprived of free movement within the Schengen zone. However, the same year he was denied a visa to BiH, Selmani — who occasionally writes poetry — travelled to Italy for a festival of poetry and, as he explained, did not have any difficulties in being granted an Italian visa.

While Kosovars remain excluded from free movement within the European Union, traveling without a visa to countries bordering Kosovo has not been a problem; even Serbia allows crossing the border with an ID card, following a bilateral agreement in July 2011.

Mission impossible

According to data from Kosovo’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, in 2008 goods exported from Kosovo to BiH were worth around 5 million euros. A year later, after the declaration of independence, this had fallen to 1.2 million euros, leading to the conclusion that the implementation of the visa regime had a dramatic impact upon exports. BiH is now Kosovo’s one of the least favorable economic partner in the Western Balkans.

In 2014 BiH exported goods worth around 64 million euros to Kosovo, mainly in the food industry, while Kosovo exported only 3.8 million euros, indicating an unequal trade volume between the two countries.

“What is paradoxical is that we can move visa-free throughout Serbia and we cannot move freely to Bosnia, with whom we have never been at war.”

Safet Gerxhaliu

BiH remains the only state in the Western Balkans aspiring to join the EU that applies a visa regime for Kosovo citizens.

Kosovo’s independence is still a political move of which BiH officially consistently disapproves, further exacerbating relations between the two countries.

Trade chambers and economic experts in both countries have already warned that visas are hindering business, and Kosovar businessmen are often unwilling to waste months applying for BiH visas.

“What is paradoxical is that we can move visa-free throughout Serbia and we cannot move freely to Bosnia, with whom we have never been at war,” said Safet Gerxhaliu, the head of the Economic Chamber of Kosovo, adding that the visa regime is impeding economic ties between BiH and Kosovo.

Many entrepreneurs from Kosovo have complained to him about the “bureaucracy and hardships” involved in getting a visa, and Gerxhaliu himself has been unable to travel to Sarajevo to attend several meetings this year.

He refused to go to the Bosnian Embassy in Skopje on what he calls a time consuming “mission impossible” to fulfill all the necessary documents to obtain the visa. “As long as there is so much bureaucracy I will not apply for a Bosnian visa,” said Gerxhaliu, who visited BiH many times before the 1999 war in Kosovo.

“Besides impeding economic ties, spiritual connections between people are being impeded between BiH and Kosovo because of the visa regime,” he said. “If the visa is lifted, my first trip would be to Sarajevo, Visoko, Tuzla and Brcko where I have many friends from the time I studied in Dubrovnik.”

Gerxhaliu argued that the two countries, which claim to have a European perspective while still enforcing visa regimes, seem far from approaching European values.

“With ghettoisation and isolation we cannot move forward,“ he said, concluding that he stubbornly refuses to apply for the visa, calling it “a nonsense.”

Expensive and Time-Consuming Process

A year ago, Selmani for the second time attempted to obtain a BiH visa as he was selected to participate in the “Sarajevo Talent” program of the Sarajevo Film Festival, as a film critic as well as a journalist.

“This time I thought it would be different as ‘Sarajevo Talent’ is quite a prestigious festival, and I also had a job,” explains Selmani, comparing it to 2009 when he tried to visit as a student.

“I know Bosnia from books, from Eurovision, football and the novelist Ivo Andric, but that’s all I know of it.”

Arber Selmani

However, despite receiving the letter of invitation and providing other required documents, Selmani said that it became impossible to get the visa as “ridiculous” requirements were added, such as demanding a birth certificate and other ”unnecessary” documents.

“In August [2015] I was working at DokuFest as a freelance journalist for three media outlets and had to travel from the city of Prizren in southern Kosovo directly to the Bosnian Embassy in Skopje, and it was very difficult to get back to Prishtina to get the other documents and then bring them back to the Embassy,” Selmani recalled.

Citizens of Kosovo who want to obtain the Bosnian visa will usually travel to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, which houses the nearest liaison office but is still around 80 km from Prishtina. This creates extra expenses, alongside the visa fee of over 30 euros.

“The extra expenses incurred in traveling to Skopje so many times, besides the other nonsense bureaucratic procedures, made me think to simply give up my efforts,” said Selmani, who also admits that if he had applied several months earlier, he may have gotten a visa on time.

Still, the procedures in the rulebook seem quite simple; the requirements involve making an appointment, providing a letter of invitation and then filling the application forms for the visa. However, Selmani was asked to provide “extra documents” — something he refers to as a “black omen” which complicated his plans to travel to BiH.

Selmani is skeptical that the situation between BiH and Kosovo will change anytime soon, despite the fact that Kosovars could soon travel visa-free within the Schengen Zone following a proposal by the European Commision in May of this year. Selmani argued that it would not make any sense for BiH to remain the only country to have a visa regime for Kosovo.

“I know Bosnia from books, from Eurovision, football and the novelist Ivo Andric, but that’s all I know of it,” Selmani said. “I saw that a vast mural of David Bowie was unveiled in Bosnia lately and I’ve seen it on the internet. The vast majority of the people in Kosovo only relate Bosnia to wartime and Srebrenica, but Bosnia has an artistic spirit that needs to be discovered by Kosovar youngsters.”

Some of the EU member states which do not recognise Kosovo, such as Greece, Slovakia and Romania, have opened liaison offices in Prishtina and considerably facilitated the procedures for obtaining visas. However, as BiH has not done likewise, Kosovars must still travel to Skopje, Belgrade or Podgorica to apply for a BiH visa.

“We don’t need to change airplanes to travel to Bosnia but this country is so near and so far from us at the same time,” said Selmani. “A friend of mine says, it’s easier to go to the U.S. than to Bosnia.“K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0