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Baltics: Brain Drain -- Returnees Find Bleak Prospects At Home (Part 3)

During the last decade, the migration of skilled workers, more popularly called a "brain drain," has affected the Central and Eastern European countries. But its extent is a matter of conjecture. While there is some anecdotal evidence and much talk of losing some of the "brightest and the best," accurate information is unavailable. This is not surprising. Some specialists who have gone abroad are living there illegally, some intend to return soon, most have not notified the authorities of their departure.

Not all countries have been equally affected. Countries that are economically better off, have good growth prospects, and attract more foreign investment have greater chances of retaining skilled professionals. In relatively successful countries, like the Czech Republic, there are doubts whether it makes sense to talk of a brain drain at all. Since many specialists return home, "brain circulation" may be a more proper term. In contrast, in Southeastern Europe, where intractable social and economic problems -- even war -- have been part of everyday life, the outward migration has been substantial.

It is impossible to foresee if the brain drain will wax or wane. Membership in NATO and the EU, increased foreign investment, and improving economic conditions will increase the number of attractive jobs. But it will take another decade to see whether this will be enough to dim the allure of the West. In this third of three articles on the brain drain, RFE/RL takes a look at the situation in the Baltics, where highly skilled returnees to the region often find they have no place to apply their new talents.

Prague, 3 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The three Baltic states, as elsewhere in former communist Eastern Europe, have been badly affected by a brain drain, as many of the region's best-educated people look elsewhere for opportunity.

Many of the thousands who have left Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in the past 10 years have done so with no intention of returning. But a growing number, perhaps encouraged by the region's economic progress, are returning to their home countries. Officials welcome the trend. Returnees often bring with them the skills and attitudes of more successful societies.

One such returnee is Gintaras Valincius, a researcher at the Lithuanian Institute of Biochemistry in Vilnius. In 1998 Valincius left Vilnius University to take a higher-paid position at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology. He recently returned to Vilnius so that his child could attend Lithuanian school.

Valincius said that in spite of his experience in the United States, he was relatively lucky to find a job once he returned. He said prospects for returnees to Lithuania these days are bleak. "What are the chances that a person returning from the West can find a job? To begin with, the number of positions requiring a high degree of skill is limited in Lithuania. It would be good if there were many technological companies, a big concentration of banks or other financial institutions, or big medical centers. In this case we would have some kind of momentum. However, nothing like this exists."

The outward migration of professionals from the Baltic states has hit the natural and applied sciences the hardest. This group includes mathematicians, physicists, computer programmers, and economists. These are skills the countries can ill afford to lose, but at the same time are ill-prepared to employ. The Baltic economies are small, with only a limited number of openings in highly specialized fields. In the past, under the communist system, such specialists would have found positions with the state -- within one of the various ministries, organizations, or research institutions. The private economy has not yet been able to take up the slack.

Valincius said it's almost impossible these days to find openings in state-owned institutions. He uses the Lithuanian Ministry of Finance as an example: "Let's take an Internet page of any ministry. I have a web page of the Lithuanian Ministry of Finance on my computer screen. We can look at any web page of any ministry for that matter. Just try to find even a little advertisement, informing people about open positions in any of the ministries. It is impossible to know what open positions exist in the Ministry of Finance when no information is posted on the website."

Albertas Zalys, a department director at the Lithuanian Ministry of Education and Science, agreed. He said positions within institutions and universities are often chosen internally. "[Science institutions are closed systems] and their management is based on so-called democracy. The employees elect their bosses, beginning with the lowest department level and ending with the biggest bosses. It is quite understandable whom they elect -- they elect people who will not challenge them and let them live a quiet life."

The situation is similar in Latvia but for different reasons, according to Nils Muiznieks, the director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies. He said the postcommunist transformation in Latvia resulted in relatively young people assuming important positions. Some 10 years later, these individuals are still going strong in their 30s and 40s, with no prospect of retirement in sight.

Muiznieks said this has blocked social mobility for younger people now coming up through the universities. Understandably, these people are now looking to go elsewhere. "For a while [now] you have had kind of blocked social mobility in Latvia and other Baltic countries. [You] had very young people in their early 30s assuming positions of authority, running banks, running ministries, you know, becoming editors of newspapers and other jobs, what are usually assumed by persons in their 50s and 60s in the West. So, you had people in their 30s assume these posts and they are still going strong at the age of 40, in their 40s, and the younger people coming up find that their opportunities are blocked."

Muiznieks said another wave of job opportunities will come with Latvia's accession to the European Union and NATO. The Baltic states will need a certain number of civil officers, consultants, and translators to fill vacancies in Brussels. And membership in both groups, he points out, will lead to more foreign investment and more opportunities, both for those who stay and those who come back.