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Jobless Balkan Youths Find It's Not What You Know, But Who You Know

Youth unemployment levels in the Balkans are among the highest in Europe and even the world. (file photo)
Youth unemployment levels in the Balkans are among the highest in Europe and even the world. (file photo)

Dado knows a lot of people in the Serbian city of Novi Pazar. Apparently just not the right ones.

Despite earning a university degree, Dado has been looking for a job for the past eight years. His story is sadly similar to that of many young people across the Balkans, where youth unemployment levels are among the highest in Europe and even the world.

Dado, who did not want to give his last name, feels his lack of success lies beyond widespread corruption and economic stagnation, and even beyond his training and abilities.

“It is quite sad to say, but those who have found work have only been able to do so with money or with connections, considering those who have sacrificed so much of themselves through schooling have not been able to find work after, either because their father doesn’t know anyone in the business or doesn’t have money,” he told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.

“Many who are much more intelligent or more talented are the ones who remain on the margins of society, while others who are undeserving, keep their positions,” Dado added.

For the Balkans’ younger generations, the fall of communism and subsequent conflicts that occurred in its wake were supposed to give way by now to a world of opportunities.

Instead, even the best and brightest are finding it tough to be the future of the region when there are few prospects for employment.

Nowhere is that desperation more apparent than in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Balkan Brain Drain

Under the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia – which included the present-day countries of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia -- had nearly full employment, as was common in communist countries. Whether you worked at a mine or a hospital, there was always a job available that paid enough to live on.

But now, as one of Europe’s youngest countries, declaring independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, Bosnia had the world’s highest rate of youth unemployment in 2016 at 67.6 percent, according to the World Bank.

This incredibly high jobless rate is forcing Bosnians, young and old alike, to look elsewhere for work.

According to the Washington-based bank, the number of Bosnians living abroad amounts to 44.5 percent of the country’s overall population of 3.8 million. That puts it in 16th place in the world for per capita emigration.

“Unfortunately, it has come to the point where you cannot find employment even in the private sector without some ties,” said Vladimir Markovic, an unemployed Sarajevan. “This trend is on the rise and it explains why a lot of the youth leave the country to search for work abroad.”

Markovic’s sentiments are backed up by data from across the region.

The World Economic Forum's 2016/17 Global Competitiveness Report ranked Serbia 137th out of 138 countries for "capacity to retain talent." Bosnia was ranked 134 while other Balkan nations such as Croatia, Albania, and Macedonia were only marginally better.

A government report last year in Macedonia showed about 85 percent of university students in their graduating year see their future “outside of the country."

Meanwhile, a recent study by Montenegro's Center for Civic Education showed that about half of that country’s young people are considering leaving the country – which only has a population of 620,000 people.

These fears of not finding work help create a brain drain across the region that will impact it for years to come, analysts say.

Connections Wanted

Twenty-seven-year-old Vasilija is under no illusions: He knows connections -- and luck -- helped him get a job at a private company in Montenegro, where youth unemployment was nearly 40 percent last year.

Have a nice résumé ? Great. Willing to work hard? That helps. University degree? Even better. But still, it’s not enough, he told RFE/RL from Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital.

“Above all, connections matter. That’s the first thing you need, and if you don’t have that then you need to constantly ask, be on the lookout, knock on doors, even annoy others. For now, I don’t think CVs matter all that much,” added Vasilija, who also did not want his family name revealed.

To be sure, connections help people find work all over the world. But with economic reforms stalling in some countries and capital inflows uneven, Balkan governments need to do more to help create conditions to spur job growth, analysts say.

Amer Osmic, a political science professor at the University of Sarajevo, said one area the state can help is with the education system in the Balkans.

While schools are good at educating students on a theoretical level, they need to do a better job on the practical side, which would better prepare those who are entering the job market after graduating, he said.

To that end, Osmic said a push should be made to improve accessibility to and the increase the number of places available at vocational schools.

Not everyone agrees that jobs are only available for those who have connections.

Back in the western Serbian city of Novi Pazar, Aleksandar says an entrepreneurial spirit has always run through the community and younger jobseekers don’t need to look beyond their own skills and ideas to make a living.

“This is a city with an entrepreneurial spirit. People here have been taught to live respectably and earn money in a fair way. The more they see jobs in the public sector are not available, the more likely they are to start their own businesses and hire family and friends,” he said.

“I have decided to stay here, and I have no intention to leave and search for work elsewhere. I love to travel, but I’m always happy to come back home, where my family, friends, and university are. So, I think this city has a future.”