Serbia Snubs Albanians Seeking Visa-Free Travel
Bujanovac | 04 December 2009 | By Jeton Ismaili
EU decision to lift visa restrictions on Serbian citizens is prompting Kosovo Albanians to claim they live in South Serbia, so they can access the benefits – but very few succeed.
Leon Osmani, aged 30, was born in South Serbia but has been living with his family in the Kosovo capital of Pristina for the last 25 years.
Ever since he heard the news that Brussels proposed to lift the requirement for Serbian citizens to obtain visas for the Schengen zone, he has been trying to change address.
He filed a request with the police in Serbia to change his official residence to his grandfather’s home in the mainly Albanian town of Bujanovac in Southern Serbia.
“They accepted my documentation as valid but my request was denied, oddly enough,” Osmani complains. The official explanation was that the data submitted in his request was incorrect.
Osmani is not the only Albanian in Kosovo trying to claim residence in Serbia as a result of the EU decision.
The reason is that the EU decision on November 30 to lift the Schengen visa regime on certain countries in the Western Balkans is highly selective.
It applies to Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro but not to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo or Albania. Kosovo unilaterally proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008. Its independence has been recognised by 22 EU states and 63 countries worldwide, but is contested by Serbia.
The new visa regime does not even apply to residents of Kosovo who have Serbian biometric passports.
That is why an increasing number of people from Kosovo have been trying to exchange addresses in Kosovo for official residence in Presevo and Bujanovac, two Albanian-majority municipalities in Southern Serbia.
Police in Presevo and Bujanovac say the largest number of applications has come from people born in Southern Serbia who later moved to Kosovo. But the list of applicants also includes people who never lived in Southern Serbia.
Most requests get nowhere. The police, working under the Serbian Interior Ministry, usually turn them down, saying they do not believe these applicants have any intention of permanently residing or working in Serbia.
Eshref Duraku is one of the disappointed applicants. Coming from Gnjilan, in southeast Kosovo, he had no prior connection to Southern Serbia but says a man from Bujanovac agreed to register him at his own address as a subtenant.
“My only goal was to get a Serbian passport to use the right to travel without a visa regime,” he admits. “I wanted to visit relatives in Austria and find a job there.” He did not succeed. Police in the nearest big town in Southern Serbia, Vranje, denied his request for permanent resident status in Bujanovac.
Jonuz Musliu, speaker of the Bujanovac local assembly, is not concerned about the plight of born Kosovars who want to apply for residence in Serbia.
But he insists that the de facto ban on citizens born in Bujanovac and Presevo from obtaining permanent residence there having lived elsewhere for a time is discriminatory.
"Everyone born in a said place has the right to return and live there," Musliu says, concerning the residence requests made by ethnic Albanians who now live in Kosovo but were born in Serbia.
Stojanca Arsic, a leading Serbian deputy in the Bujanovac local assembly, defends Belgrade’s stance, however.
“The competent authorities are only acting in accordance with the law,” he said. “An actual intention to change residence must be proven.”
Asked by Balkan Insight to clarify the basis on which the police refuse to register new residence applications for the municipalities of Southern Serbia, police in Vranje quoted Article 4 of the Act on Residence and Dwelling. This defines residence as a place where a citizen is accommodated with an intention of staying for good.
“Article 5 of the same act says that when changing residence, citizens are obliged to submit correct data,” the police said in a written reply.
“Having in mind that a lot of requests for a change of residence have been submitted lately - not with the intention of permanent residence - in order to prevent registering fictitious addresses… the competent authorities are entitled to decide whether a person has filed a request in order to get a job, get married or something similar, and if the conditions have not been met, the request will be denied," the written response added.
Zorica Kasalica, a senior official in the ministry of interior, in a written response to Balkan Insight, said citizens when registering a place of residence, were obliged to offer proof that they permanently lived in the place in which they had applied to reside.
"If it is established that the citizen has no intention of living where he applied for residence, the request is denied," the ministry’s written response to Balkan Insight said. Kasalica maintained that an applicant’s ethnic background was of no relevance to the procedure. Only the documentary evidence that was submitted was taken into consideration.