At last, Serbs win passport to freedom

For 18 years, they have felt like prisoners within their own borders. But today that will all change.

Today, for the first time in nearly two decades, millions of Serbs and other former Yugoslavs will be entitled to leave their countries and go almost anywhere in Europe without a visa. The end of the visa barrier, which falls on the festival of St Nicholas, comes 18 years after Slobodan Milosevic led Yugoslavia into the cold – and marks a new welcome for a nation that has long been shunned by the rest of Europe.

"I see this as a gift from the EU on one of our most important holidays," said Stojanka Desimirovic, 48, a Belgrade teacher, referring to the Serbian Orthodox Church festivities. "I have prepared a gift for my sons, aged 22 and 18, who don't know what it's like to travel without visas. They are going to have a short New Year's break in Budapest ... I want them to know what it feels like just to show your passport and cross the border."

Ms Desimirovic was voicing the hope of many Serbs who believe that visa-free travel is a sign that life is finally returning to the sort of normality that prevailed for decades before the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Celebrations started yesterday, with open-air parties, fireworks and concerts. Today, Serbian officials and hundreds of members of the public boarded buses and drove to the Hungarian border to make the first ceremonial visa-free crossing.

Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro were put on what is known as the "Schengen white list" on 30 November, which permits their citizens to travel anywhere in the Schengen visa-free zone and stay for up to 90 days. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania were not included on the list because they failed to meet the Schengen visa liberation criteria, which include benchmarks for passport security, border controls and fighting corruption and organised crime. Yesterday, Serbia said that it expects to apply formally to join the EU next week, and is confident it will be ready for full membership by 2014.

Serbia's inclusion on the white list is seen as a reward for its co-operation with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague and the handing over of nearly all remaining Serbian fugitives from justice accused of war crimes in Bosnia. Dozens have been arrested and extradited since 2000, and the clinching success was the arrest of former political leader Radovan Karadzic in 2008. He is currently standing trial. Only Karadzic's military commander Ratko Mladic remains underground.

Unlike other eastern Europeans, Yugoslavs enjoyed the privilege of visa-free travel from the mid-1960s onwards. For an older generation it became the normal state of affairs, but a whole generation has grown up without that experience. Visas were introduced in November 1991, after Slobodan Milosevic refused to accept a European plan for peace in Yugoslavia. Prior to that, red Yugoslavian passports were changing hands on the black market for up to $20,000.

The introduction of visas in 1991 was a prelude to the economic and political isolation of Serbia brought about by Milosevic's Balkans war policy that only ended with his downfall in 2000.

To many young people, family tales of night drives to Trieste in northern Italy for a day of shopping, of weekends in Munich, Venice or Rome seemed like fairy tales. In the past, hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavs spent their summers travelling freely around the continent – but their children grew up knowing none of this, and many fell for Milosevic propaganda in the Nineties which claimed that the imposition of visas was part of an international conspiracy against their freedom-loving nation.

As the rumours of impending visa-free travel gained credibility last summer, thousands rushed to police stations to apply for the new, EU-style biometric passports. So far, more than 1.5 million out of 7.4 million Serbs have been issued with them.

"Visa-free travel is so important psychologically," said Belgrade engineer Predrag Stanojevic, 55. "It's a boost, just to know you can take a trip whenever you want, wherever you want in Europe." For Serbs who have never been abroad before, the local media have begun a campaign of education. Pull-out supplements in the newspapers explain EU traffic regulations and penalties and give advice on appropriate behaviour at borders.

Travel agencies are reporting a boom in bookings for the New Year and the school holidays. "We've sold out all tours to Prague," said Milica Zarkovic from the Kon Tiki Travel agency in Belgrade, "and there is also strong demand for Lisbon, Rome, Berlin and Barcelona".

My daughters never knew freedom we had under Tito

It was the summer of 2001, or "our first summer without Milosevic" as my elder daughter put it. Through the war years we had been bottled up in Serbia, but now seemed the moment to break loose. "It's time we scattered across Europe," my husband, Buca, said, "no matter what it takes or how much it costs!" But leaving Serbia in the visa years was no joke.

Our younger daughter, Bojana, 18, was booked into a three-week language school in France. Her sister Ksenija, 21, wanted to go to Oviedo to study Spanish, my partner and I opted for Greece.

So we took a deep breath and set to work. An impressive number of documents were needed to convince the embassies we weren't war criminals or bankrupts, and that we could support our daughters. Be-sides passports and plane tickets, we had to show invitations from the language schools, birth certificates, proof of our employment, school certificates, bank statements... and the deeds of our flat.

We had to show certificates to prove that we were not under criminal investigation and certificates to prove that we had paid our taxes. For our Greek holiday we had to provide our marriage certificate and driving licences.

After waiting for up to eight hours at the different embassies, we got all the visas. But the rigmarole hurt: my generation was accustomed to flitting around Europe: in 1991 the visa regime slammed into place, and a part of our lives ended. I was so sorry my daughters could not share the freedom we had enjoyed under Tito, left. But finally, the doors are swinging open again.