- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- All Balkan Countries
Cheerio. The EU’s visa wall against Macedonians is finally gone. That thick, high Schengen wall, which for nearly two decades penned us in our claustrophobic Balkan ghetto, will be no more as of next year.
In a long-waited decision, the European Commission on Wednesday adopted a proposal to grant visa-free travel to citizens of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
No more long lines in front of the embassies, no more expensive visa fees and ridiculously complicated gathering of documents. No more bowing and scraping in front of arrogant EU office clerks.
The good news arriving from Brussels justly received top-story treatment at home.
Starring Macedonia’s Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and the Minister of Interior, Gordana Jankulovska, whose ministry undertook the bulk of reforms needed for the visas to go, the media-fuelled celebrations began.
Not able to hide his smile and almost childlike excitement, our Prime Minister told one local TV station he felt as happy as the day he graduated!
In triumphant atmosphere, government ministers lined up behind him as he addressed the nation with unconcealed pride over what he had accomplished. “Macedonia has won!” he said.
Without trying to undermine the significance of this historic event, which has a deep practical, as well as symbolic, impact on the region, I’m still well aware that for most Macedonians this comes as a bittersweet victory.
Deep down they feel that this is not quite the peak that we are aiming at, while the “reward” of being able to travel without restraints is a bit like getting out of jail for a crime that you have not committed.
The Shengen wall was erected against most of the Balkans during the early 1990s, when the bloody breakup of former Yugoslavia created an image of its peoples in the eyes of the West as bloodthirsty barbarian hordes, threatening its civilized values.
This ban soon turned in to a symbol of injustice and European hypocrisy towards the region, as it became clear that it was precisely the most criminal element that found it easiest to evade the regulations.
Meanwhile while millions of youngsters were left practically in a ghetto, unable to travel, learn or share those preached-about European values.
Deep down we know it is not time to celebrate and give in to triumphal sentiments. Not yet. Macedonia is still outside Europe. If we do not speed up reforms, we could miss the chance to get a recommendation for a start date to EU accession talks this autumn. If so it would be the fourth time in a row since the country became an EU candidate country in 2005.
Weary of the constant preaching about some cloudy EU values, frustrated by our inability to cope with what we feel is a deeply unjust Greek veto on our NATO membership and with pockets loaded with promises, people seem surprised by the genuinely good news.
Like a dog that has been kept too long on a tight leash, Macedonians will need time to adapt to this newly gained freedom. We have spent too much time trying to prove we are not some Balkan gremlins who must be kept at bay. Ironically, in proving so, I fear we have become more like those grim creatures; so long kept underground, we have become a bit numbed and less able to appreciate good news.
With or without a leash, a dog is trained to stay close to its yard and not wonder off. We still refuse to let out thoughts wonder off, too, even after hearing the good news from Brussels.
A generation of younger Macedonians has never visited re-united Europe. Those who once traveled freely with their former Yugoslav passports are now in the autumn of their lives, bitter over the way such a large percentage of their most productive years was snatched away.
“It was about time,” is the reaction of the average Macedonian. Yes, ordinary people are moderately cheerful, with a distinct sense of relieve. But most are far from sharing the euphoric mood of the country’s leaders.
The Serbian paramilitary who became a key prosecution witness at his former comrades’ trial for war crimes in Kosovo says he had to speak out about the brutal massacres his unit committed.