Andy Heil, RFERL, March 9, 2020
Serbia’s recent announcement that its population had sunk to fewer than 7 million people was a jolting reminder about a serious crisis in the region.
The Western Balkans has a nagging people problem.
It is undeniable that decades of net migration out of the region and into wealthier nearby European countries — and further abroad to places like the United States, Canada, and Australia — is taking a toll.
Croatia’s current stint leading the European Union presidency promises to shine a brighter light on the problem, but Zagreb’s poorer, non-EU neighbors — Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Montenegro — are ill-equipped to handle the challenges that come with decades of declining populations.
Even worse — experts and emigrants from the region agree — it is difficult to envisage an early reversal of the demographic crisis that has deepened as states in the Western Balkans remain stagnant politically, stalled in their reform efforts, and mired in corruption, inefficiency, and other drags on economic performance and opportunity.
While international migration figures can be unreliable — people rarely register their departures — experts say the Western Balkans has doubtlessly suffered some of the highest levels of emigration in the world since the fall of communism and the breakup of Yugoslavia.
A whopping 47 percent of Bosnians and 45 percent of Montenegrins live abroad, followed by 41 percent of Albanians, 30 percent each of Kosovars and Macedonians, and 18 percent of Serbians, according to the World Bank’s latest figures.
The average for all of the countries in the European Union, by comparison, is around 11 percent.
The cumulative effect is a brain drain on the population, as young and educated citizens are often the first to take their training and skills abroad.
It has also led to a mounting public sense that leaving your country is the right thing to do, and it has created a growing diaspora that facilitates future departures.
‘Push’ And ‘Pull’ Factors
Experts tend to divide people’s motivations for migrating into two categories: factors that “push” a person to leave, and things that “pull” or draw them toward a destination abroad.
The major wave of emigration from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s was the result of a major “push factor” in the violent breakup of the country, for example.
But the subsequent decades have also been unkind demographically to Albania and the former Yugoslav republics that remain outside the European Union.
“Economic opportunities are a very important driver,” says Jamele Rigolini, a lead economist and program leader for human development and poverty in the Western Balkans for the World Bank, “but especially for the skilled people — or even the unskilled — the opportunities that their children might have, the quality of education, the quality of services, the lack of meritocracy [at home] in some sectors, the quality of the government — all give incentives to people to leave.”
Air quality has become another serious push factor, he and other experts and emigrants from the region say, highlighting dire warnings on pollution in the Balkans that put several cities, such as Sarajevo and Belgrade, at the bottom of world rankings.
The Western Balkans’ “stock of emigrants” — which is the portion of nationals living abroad — is among the highest in Europe and Central Asia, according to the World Bank.
Higher salaries in countries like Germany or France — known as a wage differential — represent a common “pull factor.”
World Bank economists note that skilled emigration can contribute positively to migrants’ countries of origin in a number of ways.
For instance, it can create wealth through remittances when emigrants send money “home.”
But Mathias Lerch, deputy head of the Fertility and Well-Being Lab at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock, Germany, says that while remittances still help alleviate some economic pain in the Balkans, “the phenomenon [of emigration] is now so massive that I think it is really becoming a problem for the long-term prospect of development in the area, because you have an aging and declining population.”
The Sarajevo-based Regional Cooperation Council — which is made up of 46 countries, organizations, and other entities — told participants at a conference on employment and brain drain in the Western Balkans in January that the region’s working-age population had declined by more than 400,000 people in the past five years.
However, even with unemployment in the Western Balkans at historically low levels, fewer than half of the region’s working-age citizens have a job, and joblessness among young people is frequently much higher.
After Serbia’s announcement in January that its population had dipped under 7 million, its labor minister created a crisis team to try and figure out ways to stop the outflow of workers.