Skopje, North Macedonia – Like many young Macedonians, Marija Nikolikj doesn’t mind working hard. She just wants to earn a living through her efforts. And like a lot of young Macedonians, she thinks her best opportunities lie somewhere outside her native country.
“In Skopje, you make maybe 350 euros ($391) a month,” Nikolikj told Al Jazeera. “After rent and bills, especially in winter when you have to pay for heat, there’s nothing left over. You have to borrow money just to live, and after you pay it back, you have to borrow again. It’s impossible to live on 350 euros a month.”
The 29-year-old has spent the last eight years, on and off, in Switzerland, working her way from waitress to casino floor boss, learning six languages along the way. Her last job back home was assisting foreign consultants working to pass the 2018 referendum that changed her country’s name to North Macedonia.
The referendum is, so far, North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s crowning achievement. It ended a 27-year stalemate with Greece, which had blocked its northerly neighbour’s efforts to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) over the “name dispute”. Greece took umbrage at the country then known (to its seething resentment) as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or “FYROM,” because Greece said it amounted to a territorial claim on a northern Greek region with the same name.
Zaev’s triumph and the country’s new name opened doors to NATO – the country is expected to join before 2020 – and helped advance planned negotiations between the EU and the Balkan country in October. Joining the two key military and trade alliances is at the heart of Skopje’s plan to boost an economy that has limped along since it peacefully declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. According to the World Bank, North Macedonia has consistently been in the bottom five of Europe’s per capita gross domestic product.
“The rule of law is very important for investors, domestic or foreign,” Koco Angjushev, North Macedonia’s Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, told Al Jazeera. “Also important is stability in government, and a favourable business climate. NATO ratification shows there is stability, and EU negotiations start with commitment to the rule of law.”
Angjushev points to improving economic benchmarks during Zaev’s tenure, including a five percent drop in unemployment, private-sector job growth and rising wages. He expects foreign direct investment – currently at a 10-year high as a percentage of economic growth – to keep climbing.
You have to borrow money just to live, and after you pay it back, you have to borrow again. It's impossible to live on 350 euros a month.
Despite North Macedonia’s promising economic forecast, many young people aren’t content to wait. Like Nikolikj, they’re searching for greener pastures elsewhere. In 2011, the World Bank estimated that 447,000 citizens (out of a total of approximately two million) were living outside Macedonia in the wake of the 2008-09 global economic crisis. No government census has been conducted since; the issue is known to everyone but not discussed in polite company, as it is fraught with emotional baggage and political gamesmanship.
So contentious is the emigration issue that even those making their living from it hesitate to talk about it.
“Biljana” runs a foreign-language school in Skopje. Her name has been changed to protect her privacy because she fears getting blacklisted from teaching opportunities and government contracts.
In her early 30s, Biljana is one of the few young Macedonians building a business in her homeland. But she’s found steady work teaching others the languages needed to find jobs in Western Europe, North America and Australia.
“In three years, we’ve gone from maybe 40 students [at a time] to over 100,” she told Al Jazeera. “Money problems are the main reason they say they’re leaving. You have to work two jobs here if you want to save something, even just a small amount.”
Biljana said her classes teach almost exclusively English and German and are filled by university students, recent graduates and even schoolchildren. “I’ve had parents tell me they have to prepare their kids to leave the country,” she said. “They say, ‘What opportunities do they have here?'”
Nikolikj asked herself that same question, and found no good answer. After her parents died, she left school and Macedonia at age 21, seeking wages capable of supporting her and her sister while the latter finished her education.
“I had to do it for my family. It was not a choice. It was something I needed to do,” she said.
Nikolikj’s lifelong friend Natali Naskovska, 29, has been working outside North Macedonia even longer. While on holiday in Greece at the age of 19, she was approached by a club to help promote a DJ party. Naskovska has since built a globe-trotting career working in hotels, restaurants and bars in Europe and South Africa, where she’ll be heading soon on a four-year visa.
Getting that visa removes her from the grey market where many Macedonians find work – and where they can be vulnerable to exploitation.
“It’s very hard to work legally [abroad],” Naskovska told Al Jazeera, though she says that being an undocumented worker is harder. “You get paid in cash, but you can’t get a bank account, so you have to keep your money with you. You can get robbed. You have no health insurance. You’re always worried about police asking questions.”
We must improve the quality of life and provide hope for a better future.
The exodus is not limited to young service-industry workers. The Skopje-based Institute for Strategic Research and Education published a 2018 study showing that 69 percent of university professors – whose starting salaries can be as low as 450 euros ($503) per month – are willing to leave the country for better jobs, even those below their qualifications. The Macedonian Private Doctors Association reports that while 220 doctors graduate annually from the Faculty of Medicine, 173 apply for work abroad, especially in Germany, which faces its own shortage of physicians.
Biljana has seen this firsthand.
“We’ve had entire classes that are all doctors and nurses studying German,” she said.
The situation has become so dire that in July, the Ministry of Health pushed a bill through parliament with provisions to make practising medicine easier – including a stipulation that allows retired physicians to return to work as “consultants”.
The problem is not unique to North Macedonia. Several Balkan countries face similar brain drain. In Albania, a 2018 survey by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation found 30 percent of new doctors emigrate to Germany. Croatia reported epidemic burnout among doctors, owing in part to the emigration of 525 physicians between 2013 and 2016, found a 2019 study published in the Croatian Medical Journal. According to Bulgarian state radio, 75 percent of 2015 graduates from Sofia’s University of Medicine intended to leave Bulgaria for work – and 153 did so by May of 2016.
In fact, the ease with which young and well-educated people from EU member states can secure more lucrative work within the EU is believed to aggravate the problem. The Zaev government is bracing itself for this prospect.
“It is possible [to limit the exodus] only if we offer a better opportunity to young people,” Angjushev said. “We must improve the quality of life and provide hope for a better future. That means growing wages, new jobs, encouraging entrepreneurism, providing subsidies to help them start businesses or develop ranches and farms.”
On the one hand, the flow of young people and professionals out of North Macedonia is good for Biljana’s language-school business. But on a personal level, it’s distressing to her.
“I’m here because my family is here. This is where I want to start my own family,” she said optimistically, before pessimism found its way back in. “But I’m very much afraid of being forced to leave this country. In five or maybe 10 years, there could come a point where there are no young people left in the country. And that’s sad. Very sad.”