PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — The European Union's delay in allowing visa-free travel for the people of Kosovo has spread dismay and resentment in the continent's newest state, and one Pristina businessman has retaliated by hitting EU officials where it hurts — the stomach.
Mama's restaurant owner Shpetim Pevqeli, 50, who has catered for more than a decade to employees at the EU's rule of law mission headquarters across the road, put up a sign Tuesday reading: “Protest, no entry, for EU citizens without visa.”
While that may seem no more than a stunt, frustration among Kosovars over the delay in getting into the 27-nation bloc's so-called Schengen visa-free travel area is real. As things are, they have to wait for hours to apply for a visa to the EU, where many have family members living.
“I have an official invitation from Austria. But I have been waiting and waiting and waiting. What can I do next?” said an angry Faik Ibriqi, 60, queueing at the Swiss diplomatic representation office where many Kosovars apply for the Schengen visa.
Last week Kosovars had hoped that EU leaders meeting to discuss, among other things, their country's accession prospects would rule on the matter. But it was not discussed.
In July 2018 Kosovo fulfilled all required visa liberalization benchmarks. Both the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, and the European Parliament have called for it to join the visa-free regime.
It doesn't help that five EU member countries have not even recognized Kosovo as a country. Pristina declared independence in 2008, following its de facto secession from Serbia after a war in 1998-1999.
When they still lived in a province in the former Yugoslavia Kosovars, who are mostly ethnic Albanians, were free to move everywhere. Now some of them turn to neighboring Albania — which has Schengen access — to get a passport.
"Someone wants to go to his aunt, or his brother (in the EU) and when we learnt (there was no EU decision) again we were desperate, humiliated and that’s where the idea came from” for the ban on EU employees, said Pevqeli, the restaurant owner.
“We need to do something, a protest because (the visa situation) is not right and the protest will show our rancor, our despair,” he added.
Last week a disillusioned Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani said peace and stability in Europe were inconceivable without integrating Western Balkan nations.
“Kosovo people want more possibilities and progress. They want a no-visa regime to see, feel and live in Europe,” she said, adding that Kosovo citizens “remain isolated at the heart of the continent where they live.”
Kosovo lost more than 13,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, during the 1998-1999 fight to break away from Serbia. It ended after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign forced Serbia to pull its troops out and cede control to the United Nations and NATO.
Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. The United States and most of the West recognize Kosovo’s independence, but Serbia — supported by allies Russia and China — does not.
Pevqeli said he was confident no EU officials would be coming to eat. “They will understand the sign is for them and they do respect that,” he said.
Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.
Florent Bajrami And Llazar Semini, The Associated Press