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15 Dec 17

Bosnia and Kosovo: When Politics Divides Families

Majda Ruge

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo have the poorest bilateral relations in the Western Balkans - increasing cooperation would bring economic benefits and genuinely improve ordinary people’s lives.

Shefki and Sulltane Ukaj in Prishtina, with their grandson Nardis who lives in Sarajevo. As a result of complicated visa process, they saw their grandson only on three short occasions. Photo: Sabina Cudic, Summer 2017.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are two countries in the Western Balkans with several things in common.

Both are relatively young states, born out of the break-up of former Yugoslavia. They are both striving to join the European Union, which has set as one of its conditions the fulfillment of requirements for regional cooperation.

At the level of ordinary citizens, there is significant amount of mutual empathy between the populations for the horrors their communities experienced during the recent ethnic conflicts.

It’s a great irony, then, that no two countries in the region suffer poorer bilateral relations than Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.

This problem rarely appears on anyone’s radar except when a crisis erupts, such as the recent government and media furor in Serbia around the question whether Bosnia and Herzegovina should, or can, recognise Kosovo.

Yet such polemics conceal a much more substantive set of problems underlying the relationship that impact the lives of ordinary citizens of the two countries, trade and overall stability in the region.

Kosovo’s relationship with Bosnia is – ironically - much worse than that with Serbia or with any other country in the region.

Croatia and Slovenia, like most other EU states, have recognised an independent Kosovo. Serbia’s southern neighbors, Montenegro and Macedonia, coordinated their diplomatic recognition of Kosovo, announcing it only hours apart in 2008.While Serbia does not recognise Kosovo, there are no barriers in terms of travel and trade, partly because Serbia views Kosovo as its territory.

The situation between Bosnia and Kosovo, however, is very different: there are serious barriers to travel and trade between the two countries, damaging people-to-people contact, economic regional cooperation and overall stability.

Mutual visa requirements, coupled with the absence of diplomatic missions in Sarajevo and Pristina, means that Bosnian citizens have to first travel to Croatia to get a visa for Kosovo, while Kosovo citizens must travel to Macedonia to request a visa for Bosnia.

There are plenty of mixed marriages between Kosovo and Bosnian citizens. For them, arranging a simple thing such as a family holiday visit is a logistical nightmare.

Due to the complicated visa procedures, children like Nardis Ukaj from Sarajevo, who was born into a mixed Bosnian-Kosovar marriage, get to see relatives in Pristina very rarely. Nardis has only seen his grandparents on three short occasions during his lifetime.

I recently spoke with the Deputy Foreign Minister of Kosovo, who told me that she had to decline an invitation to attend a conference in Sarajevo because time was too short to acquire the necessary visa.

She is not alone: while several hundred civil servants from Kosovo are invited to Bosnia and Herzegovina each year in order to participate in official regional gatherings, it is never certain that participants from Kosovo will receive their visa on time.
Considering that the headquarters of the main regional cooperation initiative RCC – the successor of the Stability Pact for Southeast Europe - is based in Sarajevo, the irony could not be greater.

Then there is an issue concerning the lack of mutual recognition of documents, which represents a tremendous handicap for anyone moving between the two countries.

Provided that individuals move from Pristina to Sarajevo, their driving licenses, marriage certificates, and diplomas are no longer valid. This means, for instance, that a Kosovo pupil in 6th grade of elementary school in Pristina would have to start from the 1st grade, if for some reason her family moved to Sarajevo.

On the issue of trade, Kosovo is one of Bosnia’s ten most important trading partners. While both Bosnia and Kosovo are members of CFTA, restrictions on travel, and problems of certification impose all sorts of non-tariff barriers on free trade between the countries.

This should concern all who are interested in promoting free trade in the region as a way to boost economic growth and interdependence, including the EU.

Finally, there is an issue with the law enforcement and regional stability: Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo urgently need bilateral cooperation on rule of law matters, especially regarding extradition.

Absent such agreements, it is much harder to crack down on organised crime networks in the region.

Improving the cooperation between Kosovo and Bosnia is not only an economic and practical necessity, but also a requirement both countries have committed to under the EU’s Stabilisation and Association Agreement, which aims at fostering regional cooperation and lowering restrictions on the movement of people, capital and services.

None of these obligations can be honoured under current circumstances, but progress can be made through a series of technical solutions without touching on the hot-button issue of recognition.

To start with, these technical fixes would involve visa-free travel, mutual recognition of documents and certificates, and establishment of bilateral relations on rule of law.

Visa liberalisation would be a good start. Once Kosovo makes in on the Schengen White List, the EU should apply due pressure on responsible actors in the Bosnia and Herzegovina to harmonise its visa free list with that of the EU.

Visa-liberalisation between Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina is both a practical necessity for its citizens and a moral imperative for those who claim to stand behind concepts such as regional cooperation, connectivity and people-to-people contacts in the Western Balkans.

None of the above will happen unless some pressure comes from outside, given the Bosnian Serb veto in the Bosnia and Herzegovina institutions.

Improving the relations between the two countries will thus require the EU to be consequential in pressing for the fulfillment of SAA obligations.

More than anything, it would require the backbone in Brussels to hold the local politicians accountable for the vast gap between their rhetorical commitments towards the EU and the demonstrated unwillingness to translate these into policy solutions.

The US could help by putting the issue high on the agenda in conversations with its EU counterparts.

After all, the Western Balkans is considered one area where the US and EU can demonstrate continued cooperation, something which is proving increasingly difficult in many other areas of foreign policy.

Majda Ruge is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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