Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Macedonia: Call For Visa Change
Every summer, hundreds of people queue up outside the Greek Embassy in Skopje to get a visa for their summer holiday. After a long wait in the heat, they often receive a chilly reception from the consular office's small staff.
However, that may soon change thanks to the efforts of one outraged Taiwanese journalist, Carol Ann Chang, whose Macedonian cameraman was denied a visa to cover a sporting event in Athens.
When the cameraman requested a visa, Chang alleges that the head of the Greek consular section threw the Macedonian's documents on the floor and told him to get out of the building.
The organisers of the international basketball championship for deaf athletes, which the duo were intending to report on, complained to the Greek Liaison Office in Skopje, and the journalist was told the visa request had been approved. But Chang declined the offer and demanded an apology for the "rude treatment" meted out to her employee.
Since then, she has single-handedly rallied support from Macedonians frustrated by the issue and has gathered more than 15,000 signatures on a petition demanding fair and dignified treatment of those applying for Greek visas.
Under the banner, "Shame On You Greek Embassy", Chang organised a press conference to speak out against the country's visa policies and has urged Macedonians to boycott Greece as a tourist destination.
Chang told reporters she decided to launch a campaign against "the brutal behaviour of the Greek Embassy" in order to restore what she calls the lost dignity of many Macedonians faced with "inhuman conditions and unfair treatment in the visa section".
Her efforts have struck a chord in Macedonia.
"I had a very bad experience, first at the Greek embassy and then in the country itself. I was treated as an animal only because I am Macedonian," Iskra Opetceska from Struga told IWPR.
The liaison office queues are notorious among Macedonians making the journey to Greece for shopping, business and holidays. Some treat it as a moneymaking opportunity, queuing up overnight and selling their valuable spot for up to 50 euro the next morning. Yet would-be visitors are so keen to travel that they are willing to put up with discomfort and short treatment.
"I know that I need to take my children to the coast, and it is too expensive to go to Croatia," said one middle-aged man from Skopje. "No matter how brutal their behaviour, the fact is we will take it because we want that visa."
The Greek official who denied Chang's application issued an apologetic statement saying that a little unpleasantness was inevitable given the high number of applicants.
"The consular section of the liaison office has to cope with an overwhelming number of visa applications which exceed 600 daily in the summer months. It is, therefore, unavoidable that unpleasant incidents occur from time to time, for which I am truly sorry," wrote Dimitrios Michalopoulos, head of the consular section at the Greek Embassy, who was sacked a week after Chang launched her protest.
Greek press spokesman Yorgos Coutsoumis told IWPR that Michalopoulos was removed from office "due to numerous complaints about his behaviour".
Chang said she was pleased to see the consular officer replaced but said more had to be done. She has vowed to keep up her campaign until permanent reforms result in an equitable and efficient visa application process. "We want a positive spirit and manner by the Greek civil servants in the embassy and an increase of staff," the journalist told IWPR.
At present, Macedonians get Greek visas issued on a piece of paper instead of a stamp in their passports, and the Greek authorities do not recognise EU visas held by Macedonians. These problems stem from Skopje's difficult struggle for Greek recognition after Macedonia broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991. Greece accused Macedonia of holding out territorial ambitions on the northern Greek province that bears the same name, and Greece initially refused to recognise its smaller neighbour's independence and imposed a trade embargo. In 1995, the two countries signed an accord, and Athens lifted its trade blockade.
Chang has demanded that the respective foreign ministries resolve the outstanding visa issues or else face further protests and boycotts.
However, doubts have been raised about Chang's motives, with Coutsoumis alleging hers is a political campaign and speculating on who could be behind it.
"What she is trying to do is beyond the replacement of Michalopoulos; she is a journalist, and she is trying to push the foreign ministries to address different problems between the two countries," he said.
Chang's campaign has got results already. The Macedonian foreign ministry announced last week that Ambassador Gianis Ikonomou, head of the Greek Liaison Office, and Macedonian foreign minister Slobodan Casule have met and discussed the replacement of Michalopolous and other measures taken by the Greek side to improve conditions.
Ikonomou said that the consular section had been reinforced with several new staff members and that Greece intended to improve the troublesome visa process for Macedonian citizens.
Chang has won praise from the Macedonian public for her outspoken stance, but some are asking why it took a woman from Taiwan to stand up for their rights.
Ana Petruseva is a regular IWPR contributor from Skopje.
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