BELGRADE, Serbia – The European Union opened its borders to more than ten million Serbs, Montenegrins and Macedonians on Saturday after nearly 20 years of demanding visas, a major boost for closer ties with the 27-nation bloc.
All 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."
Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic described the visa lifting as "the happiest news this year." But Djukanovic also warned that "hard work lies ahead" before the tiny nation will fulfill its goal of becoming an EU member.
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 were also held during a midnight flight to Brussels, the seat of the European Union, as 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," an unidentified passenger told Serbian state television upon arriving in the Belgian capital.
At the border with Hungary, several hundred Serbs braved freezing weather to cross the border just minutes after midnight.
"We are finally free," said a smiling student from Subotica identified only as Zarko.
The citizens from the former Yugoslavia had enjoyed free travel to other European nations in the past, but visa requirements and fees were introduced as the federation was breaking up and going to war in 1991.
The visa policy forced residents to wait in long lines at EU nations' embassies.
Even as new free travel policy brought joy to many, some said it would do little good because of the region's widespread poverty and economic hardship.
"It's a joke," said Jelena Cavic, 42-year-old archaeologist from Belgrade. "I can only dream about Europe."
Still, 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.