Small change in law could mean a lot for country’s image

Welcome to Serbia. Did you forget to register with the police?

Serbian cops, always a nice welcome

An article in Serbia’s Law on Foreigners (Google this, and most links you get relate to Balkan countries) still requires all foreign tourists to register with the police. A relic from the old days when all foreigners were possible spies, it doesn’t just relate to the people staying in hotels, hostels or other registered accommodation, but also those who are staying with a friend or a Serbian relative. Failing to do this might cause you trouble when leaving the country. Usually this is resolved by bribing the customs police officer.

But regardless of how great this law sounds provided you are a customs officer, it leaves a bad impression on visitors: sometimes when they are forced to personally register with the police upon their arrival, or sometimes when they are forced to pay the fine and bring that experience as their last impression from Serbia.

I am not sure if this law ever helped our police to catch a spy during Tito and Milosevic days. Anyways, I am sure by now all the spies in the world have figured out the way how not to be caught by this, or any other law for that matter. But this still doesn’t solve the mystery why this law still exists in Serbia and some other Balkan countries. We have recently received a letter from a foreign tourist who had a bad experience with this stupid law. Also, our very own Lily Lynch had the same problem at one point. Here’s what they had to say about this.

Worst PR for Serbia (except maybe American movies)
Author: Hun Gary

I have visited Serbia many times, and I realized what’s the best way for it to leave a better impression on travellers. It’s easy. You shouldn’t ruin the positive image in the last moment.

Serbia has one particular law which caused me lots of bad hours, and I know I’m not alone. The law is that if you spend more than 24 hours in the country you have to officially register yourself. I saw myself and other travellers getting into trouble for not having this small, unimportant paper.

Photo: andreybl / Flickr

Many people come to Serbia from lucky countries where they have a normal relationship with the police. I’m not like that. I’m an East-European, my country – Hungary – is on the Balkan+ maps. I learned in the communism that I support the police and not vice versa. I try hard to forget this and start trusting them, and I try not to feel guilty every time I see a police officer. Neither for me nor for the police is it easy to part with our long history.

Photo: Andics Zoltán

I know the rules, but I’ve become a bit relaxed about them. I know that If I come to Serbia for more than 24 hours I should visit the nearest police station and ask them to give me a paper saying I registered myself. I just don’t know what the point is. Serbia has changed a lot in the last years. It’s not a closed country anymore. People are coming from all over the world and most of them haven’t got used to having rules like this. If you live in the EU and cross borders without stopping, you forget to register for a short trip. And then, you are in trouble.

Photo: Wikipedia

You sit on the train going home and think back of your time in this country. Nice memories. People you’ve got to know, parties you’ve been, flowing conversations in a pub on the Sava or the Danube. You sit, and realize that everything you learned about this country from the news is false. People like foreigners here. They are happy to share ideas, their time or even their beers with you. The simplified image about the country from trash American movies looks like bad jokes now. Serbia is open. Of course it has problems, of course if has aggressive football fans, but which country doesn’t? Ok, we don’t have many, just because our football is so bad that it’s too painful to watch.

You sit on the train and enjoy the view. A polite policeman comes into the compartment, and asks for your documents. You give him your passport but he asks for some strange paper, too. It turns out that your hotel or your friend who you visited should’ve registered you. Ups. You politely smile at him, saying that you didn’t know this and you are deeply sorry.

Photo: Darwinek / Wikipedia

He starts to be even more serious, and beleive me, a Serbian man knows how to look serious and your police officers probably won the gold medal at the Olympics of looking serious. You start to feel really uncomfortable. He says that this is an offense against his country. This doesn’t sound good. You really don’t want to offense people, especially not Serbian police officers. They look too tough. You know, if I have to choose a police to offend, Serbians won’t be in the top 100. I think I’d choose Italians, they look just a way more feminine (sorry Italian readers), I think Italians mostly go to the police because they have beautiful clothes.

Italian Police Guards in L'Aquila Italy / Photo: Stock

So, you’re sitting there with an offended Serbian police officer. His colleague joins, and the atmosphere becomes denser and denser. They are nice, they speak English but they are serious. They say that you don’t respect the country and they have to bring you to the nearest court where you will pay a really big fine or they’ll keep you there. Bad, bad. If you are an East-European, this is the point where you ask them if you can pay the fine on the train somehow. If you are not, they suggest it themselves. Sounds great, you say, because you don’t want to visit any court, you don’t even want to wait long hours for the next train. So, you are willing to pay. If your country is on the Balkan+ maps like mine, you know that you won’t get a receipt – if not, you’ll learn it. They are still serious, but a bit more friendly. After some more talking, you leave a nice amount there. Twenty euros if you are lucky, or at least a hundred if you’re coming from a rich country.

You are alone again, watching the countryside through the window. First you are relieved that you didn’t get into bigger trouble. Second, you start to feel bad because things should not work this way. You should not get into trouble if you visit a country. Wars have been over for a long time. Serbians should not send us to the police to register. We do not come to spy, we come to experience your country and meet your people. We don’t offend Serbia. I’ve told you, you just look too tough for that.

Photo: Mihajlo Andjelkovic

I met many travellers and they all liked this country, but some of us leave the country with a bitter taste in our mouth. It’s a pity. You all work hard, your country gets better day by day. You should change the law, allowing people to spend some weeks in the country without paperwork. We East-Europeans know that if we give chance to our police to earn some money, some of them will. Even Hollywood will learn once that Serbians are not all bad guys, but we need some time for that because they don’t learn fast. Changing a law is just way faster.

This is really the cheapest country advertisement. Just don’t ruin your nice image in the last moment.

So here’s my registration story
Author: Lily Lynch

I’d previously visited Serbia in 2007 but was staying with a large group of students at a hotel so I guess the hotel registered us. Therefore, I had no idea that I had to register on my own. Anyways, weeks go by and one of my friends says, “have you registered with the police?” And of course I hadn’t and didn’t know that I had to. Then I meet Srecko and he invites me to Ohrid for the weekend. I became terrified that I’d be thrown in prison at the border if I didn’t register with the cops. So I finally work up the nerve to go to the Stari Grad police station. They told me I needed my landlord’s paperwork showing that he owned the apartment, his licna karta [ID], etc. My landlord searched his entire house – his family had been living there for decades – but could not find the proper “proof of ownership” papers.

So I returned to the police station with my landlord who told the cops he didn’t have the paperwork but that his family really did own the apartment. Then the cops told me to find some random person and LIE (the cops told me to lie!) about where I was living “just to have it on paper”. Then they laughed and the chief of police was like, “well how about you register with me – although I think my wife would mind, ha ha ha”.

Anyways, my landlord had to leave for work and the cops told me I couldn’t leave. Suddenly they became all serious (after joking around a whole bunch) and were like “you’re in very, very big trouble, you’re going to prison” and asked me to turn around as if to arrest and handcuff me. Then they all burst out laughing. Then they said “come into our office” and offered me some shitty cigarettes and were like, “can we look at your passport” and passed it around the room for like 20 minutes, laughing at different things in it. They asked me what my ethnic background was and I told them Russian and they were like “sestra moja!” or something like that, and then the chief of police said that he would waive the requirement that says you have to have paperwork showing that your landlord owns the apartment in order to register – if I agreed to go out for a coffee with him.

Terrified, I said yes.

So I go out to coffee with this guy and the entire time he talks about the illuminati. He asked me to give him a dollar bill so he could show me all of the evil shit on it. Then he said Jews control the world and that I should not go to Ohrid because there were “too many Albanians there and they are thieves”.

Story number 2: attempting to register with the police upon arrival after a trip to the States. I was registering and applying for a visa at the same time. Apparently I’d stayed an extra day somewhere at some point, so the office of foreigners gave me the option of going to jail for 6 days or going to court in front of a judge and paying a 60 EUR fine. I opted for the 60 EUR fine.

Anyways, I was registered at Srecko’s parents’ house in Mirjevo because blah blah Srecko hadn’t officially changed his address to our new address yet. Anyways, just to “check up” on the foreigner to make sure I wasn’t doing anything evil to Serbia or whatever, the cops show up unannounced one night at Srecko’s parents’ house in Mirjevo looking for me. They went through their entire apartment looking for evidence that I really was living there. It terrified the hell out of my future mother-in-law so much that she cried.

Evidently, the police of any country is not the best tourist advertisement. It may seem like a small thing, but think about it – how many people who had to deal with the Serbian police think that was a nice tourist experience?
So let’s do something to try to change this ridiculous law so the tourists would not have to meet with the police more than it is required by common sense, i.e. NEVER.
What to do: If you are a foreigner who had bad experience with this, write an article and send it to us, we’ll publish it here.
If you’re a local and think this law article is stupid and needs to be changed, write an email to these organisations asking them to put pressure on appropriate institutions to change this obsolete law ruining the image of Serbia.

Tourist organisation of Belgrade
Dejan Veselinov,
Tourist organisation of Serbia
Tourist informations:
Ministry of foreign affairs
Ministry of internal affairs