Valandovo (Republic of North Macedonia) (AFP) – Abandoned shops and mostly empty streets offer little sign of life in Valandovo, North Macedonia, where young people are fleeing in large numbers in hopes of finding a better life abroad.
Like much of this impoverished corner of southeastern Europe, this tiny Balkan nation is sitting on a demographic time bomb fueled by an aging population, declining birth rate and massive migration.
North Macedonia has lost 10% of its population over the past 20 years. Around 600,000 Macedonian citizens now live abroad, according to World Bank and government data.
Abyssal economic growth and a lack of investment hit the country, which is now home to just 1.8 million people, during its 30 years of independence.
“If you have just over 2.4 million citizens and more than a quarter are gone, then you have to seriously worry about what is going on,” said Apostol Simovski, director of the country’s statistics office.
Villages and small towns like Valandovo, 146 kilometers (90 miles) from the capital, offer few jobs, pushing the ambitious and able to look elsewhere.
“The minds of young people have been systematically destroyed,” the 33-year-old newly elected mayor Pero Kostadinov told AFP. “The enthusiasm to fight and stay at home has been lost.”
In Valandovo alone, almost 90 percent of the population’s income is derived from agriculture, a common denominator across North Macedonia.
“Five of my friends from our class of 20 students have already moved abroad with their families,” said Bojan Nikolov, 24, member of the municipal youth council in Valandovo.
The anecdote offers a striking picture of the country’s future.
“Better to be a slave abroad”
The first results of the last census of North Macedonia carried out in September estimate that the population has decreased by more than 200,000 inhabitants since 2002.
Since the independence and dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, many hoped that integration into the European Union would offer a liferaft and the promise of a better future.
But North Macedonia’s path to EU membership has been blocked on several occasions, first by Greece and later by Bulgaria, opening new doubts about the country’s membership and pushing for many to leave the ship.
For those who stay, monthly salaries average 470 euros ($ 530).
“It is better to be a slave for 2000 euros in a foreign country, than to be a slave for 300 euros at home,” says a popular refrain in North Macedonia.
It is an image reproduced across the Balkans.
In Albania, around 1.7 million people, or about 37% of the population, have left the country over the past three decades, according to government figures.
Hundreds of thousands of people left Serbia to resettle abroad after the wars of the 1990s that hit the economy, with estimates suggesting that as many as 10,000 doctors have left in the past 20 years.
“All the countries of the Western Balkans are affected to varying degrees by emigration,” said Ilir Gedeshi, an economics professor based in Tirana, the Albanian capital.
“The main reasons are economic, but apart from that, social reasons are becoming more and more important.”
“Last train leaving”
But for Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – all hoping that EU membership will reverse their plight – Croatia is issuing a stern warning.
Since joining the bloc in 2013, its population of just over four million has shrunk by nearly 10% in a decade, according to preliminary census results.
The United Nations predicts that Croatia will have a population of just 2.5 million by the end of the century. Demographers warn that the country’s small population may lack the resilience to cope with further losses.
In December, Zagreb sought to reverse some of the brain drain by promising Croatian expatriates in the European Union up to 26,000 euros ($ 29,000) to return and start a business.
But for some regions, it may already be too late.
“For Sale” signs litter the eastern region of Pozega, one of the hardest hit by war in the 1990s. More than 16% of the region’s roughly 80,000 residents have left in the past decade, according to official figures.
“On my street, a third of the houses are empty,” said Igor Cancar, 39, from the nearby town of Brestovac.
They include her sister who moved to Austria with her husband and two children, as well as most of her close friends.
“If we want young people to stay, we need a kindergarten and help them build a house,” Cancar added.
“The last train is leaving, and we’re doing nothing but stand on the platform and wave our hands.”
© 2022 AFP