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Bosnians Shrug Off Cost Of Changing Citizenship, Take EU Plunge

Cost of a bus ticket from Vienna to Sarajevo: $45. Cost of a beer and sausage during the trip: $6. Cost of showing an Austrian passport at the Bosnian border: according to Mirza Omerovic, "priceless."

Fifteen years ago, Omerovic moved from his native Bosnia-Herzegovina to Vienna. Harassed, hassled, and just plain embarrassed as he crossed borders on his Bosnian passport, he eventually traded it in for an Austrian passport. Instantly, his travel issues were gone.

And he's not alone.

According to the Bosnian Ministry of Civil Affairs, at least one Bosnian renounces their citizenship each day on average. In one of Europe's least-populated countries, even a trickle of migration can have devastating effects.

"Frankly, it was not an easy decision," Omerovic says.

"The transition from one citizenship to another took about two years, but I'm not sorry. I remember being mistreated on the Bosnian border with my Bosnian passport. Now I just waved my hand with my new passport -- it's priceless," he adds.

Omerovic's journey is far from unusual. He is part of an exodus of skilled workers and young people from Bosnia, including doctors, architects, engineers, and students, all leaving for what they see as greener pastures.

More than two decades after a devastating war pulled the country apart along its ethnic lines, Bosnia is still trying to shake off the effects.

Almost two-thirds of young Bosnians are unemployed, one of the highest rates in the world, while the average monthly wage is around $500.

The lack of opportunity and dim prospects of a better life even if a job can be found have pushed some 80,000 Bosnians to leave the country of 3.5 million over the past 24 months.

Many of those who have left over the years appear set on staying away.

Staying Away

Deputy Civil Affairs Minister Milan Zjajic explains the trend of passport change "mainly as a consequence" of an updating of records in the European Union, which is being implemented as one of the safeguards against undocumented flows of migrants.

"By law, they had to do it," Zjajic says.

Omerovic doesn't buy that explanation.

He says having a passport from somewhere other than Bosnia "offers many more options," even at a price of about $3,000 in fees and preparation materials and the loss of Bosnian citizenship.

The root cause of the migration problem can be traced in large part to the period in the late 1990s after the Bosnian War, which pitted Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, against each other.

The conflict ended in 1995 with the Dayton agreement, which divided the country into the predominantly Serbian Republika Srpska and a Bosniak-Croat federation with Sarajevo as the national capital. Complicating matters further was the accord's initiative to place the country under international administration.

Those deep divisions have helped stall postwar reforms for an economy that was torn to shreds by the conflict.

Even more worrisome, says Hasan Zolic, a demographics expert from Sarajevo, the massive brain drain puts a country struggling to steady itself on even more treacherous footing, with populations increasingly made up of people less educated or elderly.

"This is de facto and de jure emigration," Zolic says.

"These people, who are capable workers and in their reproductive prime, will probably never return to Bosnia or return to their original citizenship. And when such people leave the country forever, you know who remains."

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