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EU states to offer free visas to Serb applicants

Days before an election seen as a referendum on Serbia’s future ties with the European Union, 17 European states said they had decided to offer free visas to all valid Serbian applicants.

“We have decided to make full usage of the flexibility referred to by the European Commission to provide free visas to all individual applicants for whom that is a possibility,” said a joint statement by the 17 states issued by the French Foreign Ministry on Tuesday. The offer was made by France, Slovenia, Germany, Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Spain, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Sweden, the Czech Republic and non-EU member Norway. The move comes before a crucial May 11 election in Serbia seen as a watershed for its future ties with the European Union.

Brussels hopes the prospect of visa-free travel will give beleaguered pro-European forces a political boost over nationalists buoyed by anger at European support for the secession of Kosovo. Serbs have needed a visa to travel to the EU since the wars that followed Yugoslavia’s break-up in the 1990s and most young Serb voters have never been abroad. With public dismay high over Kosovo’s Feb. 17 Western-backed secession from Serbia, polls forecast a tight parliamentary vote.

Nationalist prime minister Vojislav Kostunica is set to tip the result in favor of the anti-EU camp if the two main parties are tied. The EU’s 27 member states overcame internal differences last week to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement on political and economic ties with Belgrade, although its implementation remains frozen until Serbia fully cooperates with the UN war crimes tribunal. The EU sees Serbian membership of the bloc as crucial to long-term stability in the Balkans.

EU Commissioner Jacques Barrot is to travel to Belgrade on Wednesday and Thursday to present a “road map” for talks that should lead ultimately to visa-free travel in the EU for all of Serbia’s 7.5 million citizens. It will include specific conditions which Serbia needs to fulfill, including meeting EU standards on security of borders, police cooperation, fight against organized crime and adding biometric identifiers in passports.

Freedom to travel has long been the main benefit most Serbs associate with closer EU ties, but it is unclear how much of an impact the visa moves will have. Only relatively well-off Serbs, already the natural constituency of the Democratic Party, can afford to travel abroad from a country where monthly salaries average €350. Most find the current €35 visa fee the least annoying part of an application procedure that requires hours queuing in front of embassies and the presentation of numerous documents, including bank statements, salary slips, guarantee letters and even deeds to real estate property. (Reuters)