EU opens borders to Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia

AP News
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Posted: Dec 19, 2009 6:15 AM

The European Union on Saturday opened its borders unrestricted to more than ten million Serbs, Montenegrins and Macedonians after nearly 20 years, a major boost for the troubled region's hopes for closer ties with the 27-nation bloc.

The three western Balkan nations celebrated the lifting of visas with fireworks, concerts and all-night festivities, marking a significant milestone for citizens who have long felt shunned by the rest of Europe.

"We should all remember this day," said Serbia's Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic. "Finally, the same rules that apply for others apply for us as well."

In the Macedonian capital of Skopje, a huge countdown clock was posted at a central square where thousands attended a concert with DJs and pop singers. At midnight, champagne corks popped in a toast to the end of what many in the region thought was a humiliation.

"This is a great day, a very important day for Macedonia," said Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.

Champagne toasts was also organized during a midnight flight to the EU seat in Brussels. Serbia's deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic accompanied some 50 Serbs to their first trip ever to an EU country.

"I am not sure if I am dreaming or not, they gave us such a nice welcome," said an unidentified passenger interviewed by the Serbian state television upon arrival in the Belgian capital.

At the border with Hungary, several hundred Serbs braved freezing weather to be the first to cross the border just minutes after midnight Friday.

"We are finally free," said a smiling student from Subotica identified only as Zarko.

The citizens of the former Yugoslavia had enjoyed free travel in the past, but visa requirements were introduced as the federation was breaking up in 1991 in a series of conflicts that lasted until 1999.

The visa policy forced residents to wait in long lines at EU nations' embassies.

Travel agents in Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro all have reported a surge in bookings for New Year's holidays after EU ministers announced the change earlier this month.

Illustrating the triumphant mood, one blogger told Belgrade's B92 television: "The last one leaving the country, please switch off the lights."