Without my Homeland: Reflections on the Exodus of Serbia’s Youth
Anyone who believes that the optimism of youth is unassailable should pay Belgrade a visit.
“Everyone wants to leave,” said Jelena, arms crossed, as she prodded the purple cushions of the lounge with her sandaled toe, “I came back from studying abroad in Cyprus three months ago and I can’t wait to fucking leave again.”
Belgrade gave me less than 48 hours before it showed me my first example of youth discontent. Jelena was the hip receptionist at the hostel I was staying at, a cool, artsy girl who wore shredded jeans, Pearl Jam t-shirts and eyeliner so sharp it could cut glass. She had proved herself to be extraordinarily proficient at recommending the best baked beans in Serbia, though her real talent apparently lay in literary interpretation. Jelena had majored in the Classics but failed to find a job better suited to her intellectual endeavors. As a result, she was working three part time jobs, and was still barely able to cover her rent.
Jelena’s generalizations on the outbound desires of Serbia’s young would prove to be largely accurate. At first glance, Belgrade seems a vibrant hub for youthful enjoyment. Its fledgling population gathers to eat ice cream on pedestrian streets, enjoy Turkish brews in its numerous coffee houses and party in its riverside clubs. Yet, a common feeling of disenchantment hides behind the city’s energetic atmosphere; all the young people I talked to were willing to leave it behind.
I found Senka at Kalemegdan Park, listening to her iPod under the shadow of Belgrade Fortress. She was a bangle-armed, wispy-haired ginger who had been raised in Botswana by parents who left Serbia in the 90’s; “We left because it was shit, and it still is.” Senka had returned to study, since in Serbia she had access to a free education. Yet, she wanted her future to develop far from Serbia, where no one “actually plans on living.”
I talked to Djordje as he smoked with friends outside one of Belgrade’s business centers. He had studied economics and managed to snatch a comfortable job, mainly because of his AIESEC internship experiences, but his overview on the prospect of youth contentment in the country was still bleak. “If you study IT, economics or management, you’re more likely to get a contract. Otherwise, you think about your kids and you leave.”
Nevertheless, the negativity of Jelena, Djordje, Senka and so many others cannot be reproached. The particular wave of youth emigration they refer to began in the 1990’s, after the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia triggered ethnic conflicts and crippled the Serbian economy, affecting both Serbians within the homeland and those who have already joined the exodus.
The force of the trend is clear. Three out of every five parents want their children to leave Serbia. Youth unemployment in the country is sky high at 49 percent, according to the World Bank. About 32,000 people leave Serbia every year. A considerable amount of these are highly qualified professionals who seek better job opportunities in EU countries or the United States. Forty years ago, university graduates who emigrated accounted for barely two percent of the educated population. Today, the number has increased to 15%, forcing Serbia to face a crippling brain drain phenomenon. In 2009, Serbia came second to last in a list of 133 countries failing to retain skilled labor.
Djordje, Jelena and Senka’s generation faces a future of labor uncertainty and political frustration as it seeks a way out of Serbia and into a more promising future. Yet the brain drain problem does not only concern the country’s current youth. Their more than three million predecessors, who successfully left the country to work and study abroad as the emigration tide started to rise, are largely unable to return to their homeland.
Hidden amongst parks and diplomatic residences, the small building at Diplomatska Kolonija 22 houses the headquarters of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence. The fund, part of a network implemented by the Council of Europe, aims to contribute to the overall economic and political development of Serbia through capacity building. There I met Ljiljana Ubović, coordinator of the fund’s brain gain program.
Ubović came across the frustrations of the diaspora without intending to, as she contacted Serbian returnees with foreign post-grad degrees for a development program. The seventy individuals she worked with were “the best of the best”, those who had gone abroad during the difficult decade of the 90’s. Leaving the country then was so difficult that Ubović’s generation knew international scholarship winners by name. Yet even the most educated overachievers encountered a whole range of problems after they returned.
Ubović mentioned the unwelcoming disposition of Serbian employers. “There is a notion,” she said, “that those who are really good are not returning, that if you do come back there’s something wrong.” This outlook is disastrously coupled with severe administrative problems on the part of the Serbian government concerning national recognition of foreign degrees. Those who wish to have a foreign diploma accepted by the national qualifications network have to overcome mountains of red tape in a process that can take up to two years and become very expensive, hence excluding returnees from the labor market. Ubović mentions the case of a Columbia PhD graduate who was unable to accredit her degree because she had written her dissertation in collaboration with two other peers, something deemed unacceptable by Serbian regulations. One of Ubović’s colleagues at BFPE was considered only a primary school graduate by the Serbian labor market, since his high school, college and graduate education had taken place outside of the country.
Foreign diplomas are recognized by the private sector, and returnees manage to get hired by banks, companies or foreign development programs. But without official government recognition of their degrees, they will never be able to work within the state administration, arguably where the country most needs highly qualified individuals.
In spite of the severity of the issue, there is a complete lack of data concerning both migrants and returnees. All attempts by the Serbian government to compile information for an international network of Serbian professionals have been, in Ubović’s opinion, unsuccessful, with Serbians abroad becoming more and more reluctant to collaborate as further state endeavors continue to fail. Enveloped in disinformation, “nobody can say whether things are changing.”
The returnees Ubović worked with still held fond memories of their pasts in Serbia. Many of them wished for their children to grow up there, supported by the country’s tradition of strong family ties. Yet for the time being, returning Serbians continue to face the reality checks of corruption, extensive bureaucracy and indifference. The power to administer the systemic change needed to anchor them home lies almost solely in the hands of their state.
In Belgrade, the heart of the government is housed in the Palace of Serbia. It is a misnomer; the massive structure, which stations a variety of ministries and state agencies, does not hold a single trace of royal ornamentation. It is a solid block of cement and glass. Its straight angles and rows of identical offices, stifling under the midday summer sun, seem to be legacies of a communist past.
There works Miloš Radosaljević. He is the coordinator of one of the country’s most successful brain gain programs, the Fund for Young Talents of the Republic of Serbia. In simple terms, it is a scholarship program, granting the most talented Serbian citizens with funding for education at both national and international levels. Yet the fund does not only aim to reward talent, but also to keep it at home. Recipients of FYT scholarships are contractually obligated by the government to work in Serbia for five years after finishing their studies.
Established in August of 2008, the fund is the star program of the Ministry of Youth and Sport, although it runs in collaboration with the ministries of Education, Finance, and Culture. The fund benefits 1200 students at Serbian universities and 500 graduate students pursuing diplomas abroad every year, managing an annual budget of more than seven million dollars.
FYT scholarships are very competitive, with a GPA score of 9.5 out of 10 being the minimum listed amongst awardees. Students are endowed exclusively as a result of their academic merit, and are expected to maintain high standards. Radosaljević and his team are currently examining results from the first generation of FYT scholars to return to Serbia since the implementation of the fund, and the outcome is promising. In a country with 50 percent youth unemployment, 69 percent of the fund’s recipients managed to acquire a job up to a year after graduation. A further 25 percent decided to continue their graduate or post-graduate studies. Despite the fund’s success, 15 percent of the scholars failed to find work after returning. Jobless, they are still contractually anchored to Serbia.
The fund makes sure to offer a number of options to its unemployed scholars, including workshops, internships and partnerships with private corporations such as Microsoft and Huawei. In a perplexing turn of events, the program does not place scholars within the public sector. As much as Radosaljević would like to cooperate with other ministries, there is an enormous surplus of labor within public institutions, leading the Serbian government to severely limit access to state jobs. Returnees are once again impeded from directly influencing public policy. The fund has also attempted to aid its scholars in accrediting their foreign degrees by working with the Ministry of Education and Science to reform the lengthy process. Yet Radosaljević admits that “there has been no progress.”
The fund is well intended, and its efforts should not be underestimated But, as Rasodaljević states, it is an “elite program…and we do not have the capacity [to] expand it to all students without considerable financial support. We would love to, but we just can’t.”
Perhaps the saddest truth behind brain drain is that a country’s talent is sought elsewhere for lack of appreciation at home. Yet, if Serbia wishes to overcome its crippling problem, the road ahead is clear. The country should strive to follow the suggestions of the European Union and implement a reformed national qualifications framework. Brain gain programs are expensive, but returnees can become visiting professors, without needing any long-term commitment. Alumni organizations should be strengthened, and contact should not be lost.
The reality of the brain drain is frustrating and disheartening, but my final encounter with the young of Belgrade was unlike any other I had experienced. I was walking down an unknown downtown avenue when I was surrounded by a cacophony of shouts, drumrolls and singing. A mob of strangers with wildness in their eyes erupted from a side street and headed joyfully towards a common destination. Enthralled, I followed them to the fountain at Nikole Pašića square, just a block away from the National Assembly. The fervent youths started to take off their shirts and jump into the fountain, splashing each other with water and beer, laughing wildly, and chanting in strong Serbian.
It was a visceral demonstration of joy, and their enthusiasm was contagious. I ran after them, smiling, not caring about the droplets of water and alcohol that rained on my clothes, not caring about the dangers of surrounding myself in such a public display of impropriety, not caring about the irrationality of the moment. Yet in the unintelligibility of shouting, as jeans darkened with moisture, smartphones short-circuited to record the spectacle and bodies struck the white waters of the fountain, the air was loaded with something more powerful than drizzle.
A small mob had gathered, absorbed by the scene just as I was. I asked a man what was going on.
“They just graduated college,” he said.
As I watched, it struck me that patriotic love in Serbia can survive years of disappointment. I imagine the young graduates at Pašića Square were aware of that. We were all caught in a whirlwind of pale skin and cold water and pure, unadulterated joy, and in that moment there was no thought of the future, there was only hope.
Micaela Bullard ’18 is a Latin American Studies major in Calhoun College. You can contact her at email@example.com