“And in Amsterdam, when I was in the red-light district, I was like, oh my God, this is really weird! I mean, I knew what to expect and I thought I’d be perfectly fine, from a feminist perspective and all that, but when I actually saw all these women sitting in the shops just like commercial goods for sale, well, that was pretty shocking, I must admit”, explained Tatjana, while she was making her bed in a couchette cabin of the “Avala”-night train Vienna-Belgrade. This is where we met last summer. Thanks to her good grades – Tatjana is studying political science at the University of Belgrade – she had the opportunity to do an Interrail trip, sponsored by the European Union. Actually, not sponsored financially, but by providing visa support.
Tatjana was full of impressions of Spain, France, Germany and Holland after a few weeks of travelling, and we talked for hours. “I wish I could travel more often”, sighed Tatjana. Well, she still cannot, due to visa restrictions for Serbian citizens. Tatjana was 26 when we met and it was her first journey abroad, if you do not count that she has been to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia. “Whenever I show my passport at the border, I feel like a war criminal, to say the least”, giggled Tatjana, in an attempt to keep her sense of humour in spite of the rigid border regime for her and her fellow countrymen.
Indeed, the Serbian passport does not really deserve its name, because etymologically, a passport is an “authorisation to pass through a port”, i.e. to enter or leave a country. And your Serbian passport is rather obstructive than helpful, when it comes to entering a country. I am speaking from experience, as I, too, was the holder of a Serbian passport for many years.
“More than 75 percent of young Serbs have never been abroad”, said Olja Homa, the managing director of an NGO called “The Citizens´ Pact for South East Europe”, when in April 2008 I was doing research for an article on visa regimes for the Austrian daily “Der Standard”. “And this is a catastrophe”, Olja added. According to Olja, this is especially a problem for young Serbians who were born after 1990. “Before the war Yugoslavs were allowed to travel freely in Europe. But now people are so used to stay at home that they don´t even travel to Macedonia, simply because they don´t consider travelling abroad as an option for themselves.”
Restrictions on free travel do not only cause frustration because you cannot do something that you would like to do, but have also sociopolitical implications in the long run. “Many young Serbians think, they don´t want us in Europe. This sentiment fuels anti-european and nationalist stances in the country, and backward, nationalist politicians make use of this. If there are so many Serbians who have never seen another European country, then the EU should not be surprised by anti-EU-sentiments in Serbia”, thinks Darko Miloradović from the umbrella association of Serbian Organisations in Vienna. “The EU demands participation from Serbia, but participation is not a one-way street.”
What Darko means is similar to what Tatjana said: “You meet so many young people in Europe, who have the same interests that you have, who listen to the same music etc. Only that they can travel around freely and visit you and you can´t.” Almost every Serbian knows or is related to somebody who lives abroad, be it your auntie who emigrated to a Western European country in the seventies (‘Gastarbeiter’) or your friend from school who somehow managed to study abroad. But while your auntie (even if she has taken EU-citizenship in the meantime) and your school friend can come and visit you in Serbia anytime, for you to pay them a visit is far more complicated.
So what do young Serbians do if they are still determined to go abroad? – Some take the risk of studying, which is an option that has nothing to do with studying abroad à la Erasmus. “As a Serbian student in Austria you have to prove every year that you have 7000 Euro on your bank account, which, of course, you don´t have, and there´s no way you can earn that much money, because you are not allowed to work. So you have to ask friends to lend you the money so you can show the account statement to the authorities,” says Nikola from Novi Sad, 28, studying slavistics in Vienna. “ I like being in Vienna and know many nice people here, but I feel legally discriminated. You see, an Italian or a French student, who is more likely to have the 7000 Euro, is not asked to show his account statement. Also, nobody asks him whom he lives with and what he is planning to do with his degree.”
There is reason for optimism though, for Tatjana, Nikola and all the other young Serbians who are eager to explore the continent they live in. The fact that Boris Tadić won the last elections and the war crimes fugitive Radovan Karadžić got arrested might help Serbia to move into a pro-EU direction, thus to get on the so-called white Schengen list. This would mean that Serbian citizens would be able to travel to Schengen countries freely. However, Kosovo´s one-sided declaration of independence is not making life easier for Tadić, because no political party in Serbia is willing to accept an independent Kosovo, which, on the other hand, is a position that the EU finds inacceptable. So it is yet to be seen how and when Serbia is going to overcome its state of (self-) isolation.
Photography by meereshund ©