Economy without healthy society is not enough

Ana Đurić, Serbia

If we were to stop young people on the streets of Belgrade and ask them about their plans for the future, one thing is for sure – we would meet many of them who are talking about going abroad, whether it’s temporary or forever. If we were to generalize this pattern to whole Serbia we would have devastating results – thousands of young people who are already thinking about going or getting ready or even booking a flight to their ’better life’.

Of course, comprehension of the term ’better life’ varies from person to person, but if you’re living in a country with deeply ingrained values, corruption that blooms day by day, declining culture and an unstable economic system, a definition of happiness easily changes from abstract to material.

The non-existent economic system brings all sorts of consequences, the state budget is disappearing in the accounts of imaginary companies, and plans which would provide better perspective not only for youth but for all people remain at the level of proposals.

However, simply concentrating on numbers and money while ignoring general spirit of society might not solve the problems of migration.

How many people leave?

According to Eurostat survey in 2018. fifty thousand people left Serbia. This number won’t tell us much standing here alone, but if we add the fact that country has about 7 million residents, and that we have 33% more people who are older than age of 65 than those who are 15 or less suddenly it turns out as a great number. The population is ageing, young people are leaving and if this trend continues United nations forecast is that by the year 2061. Serbia will lose about three million people.

IMF and OECD also have their report form July 2019, which gives us an estimated number of 400.000 people who left between 2008 and 2016. We have to keep in mind that they only counted countries who are part of OECD, so this number is probably larger.

None of these estimations can be 100% exact, because there are a lot of people who might went for undeclared work, but we’ll take them as very approximate.

Another research conducted in 2019 by the Ministry of Demography and Population Policy of Serbia showed that out of eleven thousand students who participated, 3.900 said that their plan is to go abroad immediately after getting their degree.

So why is that?

The question follows why are they ready to leave their whole life here and go? Usually first thing that comes to mind is that economy is the only reason, and if they get well-paid job they would stay. However, that might not be the case. Yes, economic problems including unemployment, poor position of workers, difficulty in finding a job that would match their education and even more difficulty in keeping it are enormous problems, but that’s not the only thing that makes youth “flee the country” as people here would say. So where’s the rub?

According to the research conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) ‘Youth in Serbia 2018/2019’, one of the main reasons is the desire to escape from a bad situation. This can be interpreted in several ways, but mostly refers to the main problems of Serbia in the last ten years – the decline of democracy, institutions, media, corrupt government and the subtle introduction of authoritarian regime.

For example, an 18-year-old freshman student Anja and her friends told me how unsatisfied they are.

„Yes, I’m planning on leaving, a lot of things here have to change – from this corrupt system to the mentality of the people. It is extremely bad in every way. I would only come back on vacation“, Anja told me.

Her friend Milica (18) agrees and describes the country as „state of ruin“ and that „ruling regime is cause of the problem“.

What Milica is talking about refers to numerous scandals of the ruling leadership that have appeared in the media in the last eight years for which no one has ever been held accountable, about their extreme weakening of the media, as well as deepening distrust of people in them.

On the other hand, Uros (19) believes that the „ruling regime is a reflection of the general situation in society“ and that „the one who holds this government is only the most radical example of the average citizen of Serbia.”

Marija (22), an architecture student, confirms that a well-paid job is not the only thing that would keep her in Serbia, and adds that she would “rather live in a country where the government is not so corrupt.”

Thus, the statement of Friedrich Ebert’s research that desire to emigrate is most closely connected with the pessimism regarding the future situation in the country proves to be very true here.

Where do they want to go?

What countries then represent the ideal country that could fulfil, we would agree, very realistic demands of young people?

Various NGO research shows that people from Serbia almost always choose Western countries, those that seem to provide a chance to achieve a normal standard of living and which Serbia, at least officially aspires to, judging by its efforts to be accepted into the European Union.

The Friedrich Ebert’s study confirms this and says that the largest number of respondents don’t know where they would go (23%), but those who know mention Germany (16%), USA (10%), Switzerland (10%), Austria (9%) as well as Italy, France, Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland.

My above-mentioned interlocutors would agree with this as their answers were also Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Iceland, Spain, Italy, France and even Japan.

So what did the government do
to try and end this?

If the government knows that this is one of its biggest issues, then what measures has it taken to prevent it?

Apparently, no measures or insufficiently engaged ones. There is no incentive for young people to stay here, investments in culture and education, the things that could actually save this society, are insufficient.

The decline of the cultural and educational system as well as optimism of the people has been continuous for 30 years.

A concrete example of the lack of any support is this situation with the corona virus, where the entire education system has moved to the online sphere and where it relies on the ability of pupils, students and professors without much help from the state. Students were even evicted from their dormitories so that their rooms could be adapted for COVID patients.

In January 2019, a Coordination Team for Monitoring Economic Migration was formed, headed by the Minister of Labor, but until January 2020, all that happened is adopting a draft Strategy for stopping the population going abroad.

The Friedrich Ebert study states that the country should provide for young people to continue professional development through programs for which they would give scholarships or at least co-finance it, to provide support in knowledge exchange and cooperation between colleagues abroad, to make higher education more accessible without losing the quality and more assistance of the state in helping youth with finding a job.

Is change possible?

The whole view of the current situation seems gloomy. Young people seem to prefer to leave and do not want to return, regardless whether the state officially adopts some policies or not, and 90% of parents support them in this no matter how emotionally difficult it is.

Due to the last 30 years marked by wars, economic crises and the mere struggle for survival, citizens do not trust the institutions, governments or their policies and strategies. Mind you, this is not only a problem of Serbia, but of the entire Balkan region.

So Serbia is facing this large brain drain as well as low birth rate making population older and older. People are tired of fighting battles for basic human rights that should’ve ended decades ago.Economy is important but so is living like a human being. Given all this, the question remains how much longer will such order be possible?