Serbian visas as diplomacy

Serbian visas as diplomacy

Serbia has ensured that its passport holders have visa-free access to a wide range of countries, from Belarus to Indonesia. Many new visa waiver agreements have been signed in the past 5 years, but the most recent agreement, with Iran, was cancelled after one year alone. The failure of the Iran agreement highlights the unique role that visas play in Serbian diplomacy.

In recent years, Serbia has supplemented the visa waivers it inherited from Yugoslavia with a flurry of new visa-free travel agreements with countries including China, India, and Azerbaijan. They have usually been signed in conjunction with trade and cooperation agreements, suggesting a primarily economic motive. There are, however, other reasons behind Serbia’s eagerness to negotiate visa-free travel.

Why visas?

Visas hold a particular place in the Serbian popular consciousness. During the 1970s the previous Yugoslav passport was one of the most sought-after commodities on the black market as it offered visa-free entry to both the global superpowers of the United States and Russia, along with many of their allies. This freedom of movement was one of the most visible aspects of Tito’s non-aligned foreign policy, which meant that he did not side with any bloc. As a result, any Yugoslav citizen could travel both East and West easily without many constraints.

This freedom of movement saw a radical reversal during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. During the 1990s, strict sanctions were imposed on the country and its successor states. Yugoslav citizens suddenly had to apply for visas to travel even short distances to neighbouring European countries like Hungary. This was perceived as a painful reminder of how far Yugoslavia, and later Serbia’s, status had fallen internationally. The jarring change from easy travel to Europe to requiring visas for any travel outside the country is still keenly remembered in Serbian culture.

For this reason, obtaining visa-free travel to another country is a much bigger domestic ‘win’ for politicians in Serbia as compared to other countries. It is reminiscent of foreign policy relations under Tito’s global non-aligned movement. Serbians believe their international status has improved since the nation was considered an international pariah in 1990s. This has given visa-free travel great importance and resonance with the Serbian public.

Why did the Iran agreement last one year?

Although the recent visa agreements limit visa-free movement to short-term stays, similar arrangements in other countries have often facilitated permanent migration. This is what led to Serbia’s cancellation of the visa waiver agreement with Iran. A reported 15,000 migrants travelled to Serbia in 2017-2018. Most were using Serbia as a stepping stone towards the EU, often illegally crossing the border into neighbouring member states, after they all entered Serbia legally.

The government’s failure to foresee this problem is a significant oversight, especially as Serbia was at the forefront of the migration crisis at its height in 2015. Thousands of people from the Middle East transited through the country every day on their way to Western Europe. The lack of preparation for the influx from Iran illustrates the ad hoc nature of Serbia’s visa-free travel agreements. They work well until the legal movement of people occurs on a large scale. Serbia’s status as a poorer European country outside the EU usually protects it from this possibility, and the country tends to be a source of migrants rather than a destination for them. It is therefore usually able to offer visa-free travel without needing to prepare for an inflow of immigrants.

Pressure from the EU undoubtedly played a role in the decision to cancel the agreement. Serbia shares borders with four EU member states – Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, and Romania. The country is a well-established transit country for illegal migrants, as the Iranian case shows. Serbia’s handling of migration, especially in the current political climate in Europe, has implications for its potential accession to the EU. Serbia’s decision to grant visa-free travel to Iranians raised the possibility of another wave of Middle East migration, while the EU is still struggling to deal with the ramifications of the previous wave. The EU was so concerned by this that it reportedly considered cancelling Serbian citizens’ visa-free travel in response, which would have been a disaster for the Serbian government.

Serbia’s case for accession would be greatly helped by an effective, controlled migration policy, especially given the rising levels of anti-immigration rhetoric in the EU. The decision to grant visa-free travel to Iran instead showed a naive lack of consideration for the implications of Serbia’s policies on the rest of Europe. An inability to police migration effectively will not be looked upon kindly in a country that would host one of the EU’s external borders as a member state.

Cancellation implications of Iran agreement

Serbia’s unattractiveness to economic migrants renders visa waiver agreements a low-risk strategy: there are no major implications and there may even be a small economic bonus from increased numbers of tourists. Conveniently for Serbian politicians, the agreements also appeal to the electorate for historical reasons. When there are unintended consequences, Serbia can make or break these agreements very quickly and easily, as seen in the Iranian case. The country implemented and cancelled an agreement on visa-free travel with Iran in only one year. Compare this to the EU’s 6 year-long negotiations with Kosovo on visa-free access for its citizens to the Schengen area.

This flexibility also renders the agreements superficial. They are gestures of goodwill that can be revoked at any time, rather than reflections of a coherent policy. Their appeal relies on there being little change in the movement of people due to Serbia’s lack of economic opportunity. The combination of long-term sanctions placed on Iran for years was only recently lifted and may be reimposed soon, with an oppressive regime especially towards minorities made it a likely source of immigrants. When Serbia offered visa-free travel and direct flights in an agreement, it made the journey to Europe irresistibly simple for many Iranians.

This is probably due to its geographical proximity to the EU, compared to the other countries that Serbia has granted visa-free travel. The failure of the Iran agreement is an exceptional case so far, so it is likely that Serbia will continue to negotiate further visa waivers with friendly regimes that do not pose a risk of large-scale influx of migrants. A similar situation could easily arise again in the future if Serbia does not better plan its offers of visa-free travel.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds degrees in South Eastern European Studies and Modern History from the University of Belgrade and the University of Oxford, respectively. He has previously worked as a political reporter at the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and at UNDP in Serbia.