Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Depopulation Disaster: The Balkans And Its Creeping Demographic Crisis

By Andy Heil

March 9, 2020

Some of the best and brightest have been fleeing life in the Western Balkans in droves in recent decades. And there's no end in sight.

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.

"The idea of leaving the Balkans certainly isn't new," says Robert Austin, an East-Central and Southeastern Europe specialist at the University of Toronto.

In addition to population outflows during and after the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, he cites "massive departures" in the 19th century for better economic opportunity elsewhere and efforts by some of those Balkan emigrants to return after World War I "to take part in the making of a new, prosperous, ideally democratic state."

Those efforts mostly failed.

"The situation now kind of mirrors that, in the sense that people have way better economic opportunities in the European Union, in particular, and they've left. The difference this time, I think, is that they won't come back."

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.

Gotta Get Out

Zorana Kurbalija Novicic is arguably someone who Balkan states might like to retain -- or win back.

After earning her doctorate in 2009, the University of Belgrade graduate and lecturer in population genetics quickly recognized the gap left by top researchers who fled the bloodshed in the 1990s following the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Serbian research institutions were poorly funded, ill-equipped, and struggling to survive, much less develop young scientific talent like hers through grants or international conferences.

There were admirable exceptions, Kurbalija Novicic tells RFE/RL, but "Serbian science simply lost [its] competitiveness…[to] the EU."

"It was clear for me: Serbia is my country and I am proud of it, but I must go someplace where my ideas can reach [their] full potential."

After countless applications abroad, she won a prestigious international fellowship in 2015 that allowed Kurbalija Novicic to continue her research career at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Population genetecist Zorana Kurbalija Novicic spent years applying for projects abroad before finally moving, with her husband and two children, to Sweden in 2015.

"It wasn't difficult for me to leave," says the mother of three, who has since founded a science-for-kids startup called Science Market Uppsala. "On the contrary, it was a relief that after years of hard work I finally got a chance to do high-quality research and I got my own money for that."

Kurbalija Novicic immediately appreciated "celebrating cake days instead of war endings and battle beginnings. Politics became not very central in our lives, [and] that was very refreshing."

Her plan was to spend two years abroad before seeking a new grant so she could establish her own research group in Belgrade.

"That was my dream: to educate myself in the EU, get grants and establish a network, and come back to Serbia. But..."

Instead, Kurbalija Novicic says, she and her family now hope to stay in Sweden.

'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.

"Serbia and Montenegro are doing better than Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania in terms of all migration," says Rigolini, "but they are [still] experience- and job-challenged. And I think that the commonality [of population loss] is also due to the fact that they're all very close to Western Europe -- and Europe, it's a strong 'pull factor.' So while the 'push factors' do vary across countries, all these countries still have some challenges to address."

Higher salaries in countries like Germany or France -- known as a wage differential -- represent a common "pull factor."

Much of the foreign direct investment (FDI) into the Western Balkans is focused on low-cost labor in low-productivity sectors.

"One needs to remain realistic, and even if all these factors would improve, the temptation to migrate would remain very solid and strong."

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."

Emigration can also encourage FDI and entrepreneurship, boost incentives for greater training or education, or bring emigrants home in what's known as "circular migration" that delivers know-how and business savvy.

And experts say emigrants who leave the workforce in their home countries can sometimes help alleviate unemployment there in the short term.

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.

A cable car rises above a smog layer that shrouds the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in January 2020.

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.

And the kind of sustained brain drain that the Balkans is experiencing can be crippling in so many other ways that governments there are understandably wary of wealthy countries' bids to poach their best and brightest.

One of the Balkan emigrants' most popular destinations and also one of the Western European economies most desperately in need of labor, Germany, implemented a new law this month that is aimed at simplifying immigration for college-educated and other skilled workers from non-EU countries.

"This [new German] law facilitates the movement of people, the movement of labor to Germany, [and] has the potential for [encouraging] a large influx [to Germany]."

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.

'Culture Of Migration'

"There has been a kind of culture of migration which is now very strongly rooted in the Balkans," says Lerch.

"I think that a young person, if they want to realize something in their life and have a good status, they [believe they] need to go abroad -- it's more like a rite of passage."

Thirty-six-year-old Milos, a Serbian emigrant who asked not to publish his full name, says he knew it was time to go when, around six years ago, "very slowly, very gradually, daily life in Belgrade became sort of an agony."

Young people enjoy an outdoor cafe in downtown Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

"You know, day-to-day things, the people that you come into contact with, are just annoying you -- that's the best way I can explain it."

He cites reasons like the country's political culture, evaporating prosperity that prevented him from earning a living wage, and the paucity of services.

"And you realize that you're surrounded -- you're somewhere that it's going to take decades to get better...for Serbia to become a normal country like Germany," he says.

Milos spent years learning German and training and working as a sound technician before landing a job in Munich in January 2018.

"Whatever that was -- that thing that pushes us away from Serbia -- you're able to take it until more comes into [the] picture," he says. "I intentionally kind of put it off, although I wanted to have a child already five years ago. I kind of put that off to avoid him growing up there...which now, when I look back at it, I find it awful."

His son and the boy’s mother are still in Serbia, where he visits them.

"It wasn't until my son was born last year in the summer -- that's when I really felt like, 'OK, [Germany] is now going to be his home and I'm going to do everything to get them here,'" he says. "Two years I was fighting to get myself to Germany. Now I'm in the process of fighting and doing what needs to be done to get them here."

Economists at the World Bank note that while "pull factors" are outside the hands of Western Balkan governments, they can do more to dampen the "push factors" for people like Milos and his growing family.

They suggest boosting job creation and private-sector growth, encouraging the attractiveness of their countries both professionally and for people's private lives, and reforming education to better correspond to local and global demand.

Milos is skeptical.

"Why would it stop?" he asks of the flight of people from Balkan countries. "What makes people and the economists think that it would stop? Is it getting any better there?"