Bosnians are leaving their country in droves. Why? And what can be done about it?

With Samir Beharić, Elma Hodžić, Danijela Majstorović, and Nela Porobić Isaković. Featuring music by Dubioza Kolektiv.

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Episode Transcript (and More)

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[JINGLE]

PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.

“People leaving Balkan countries is not emigration, it’s evacuation.”

[SOUND EFFECT – “Joke Drums”]

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Waving Goodbye” by Ketsa]

The problem of mass emigration from the region is painfully real.

The countries of Southeast Europe, wrote Tim Judah in 2019, “face catastrophic depopulation, with far-reaching social and political consequences. Young people are leaving. Fertility rates have collapsed. Societies are ageing. The demographic future of the Balkans, afflicted by emigration and chronic low birth rates, is dramatic. But serious analysis of the region’s demographic decline, depopulation, and the hollowing out of the labour force is harder to find”—than other stories about the region—“[p]ossibly…because governments have neither credible answers nor the resources available to change things.” End quote.

The ex-Yugoslav country where the situation is particularly dire is Bosnia and Herzegovina. Emigration comes up pretty much in every one of my conversations with Bosnians. Existing data are unreliable and it is in fact nearly impossible to determine accurate numbers at all. But according to one estimate, by Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, between 1989 and 2050, Bosnia and Herzegovina will have recorded a 29 percent decline in its population. That’s basically a third of its people gone. The declines cut across the constitutive entities and across ethnic groups.

[01:35]

SAMIR BEHARIĆ: Depopulation—if this trend continues and if nothing changes, on this like a policy-making perspective—depopulation might be the biggest problem that our generation has ever faced.

[01:47]

PETER KORCHNAK: Emigration forms a large part of this trend, so much so that Bosnia and Herzegovina has been labeled an emigration country. The country’s Ministry of Security estimates that the entire Bosnian diaspora, that is the 1.7 million people who have left since the 1960s, “accounts for over half of the country’s current population;” put another way, one in three Bosnians lives abroad. This is the highest percentage of all European countries. Between 2011 and 2019, some 400,000 Bosnians, or 13 percent of the country’s population emigrated. The trend has been intensifying in recent years.

Of those 1.7 million Bosnians abroad, 87 percent are in Europe and 10 percent in North America. By country, most emigrants from Bosnia are in their ethnic homelands Croatia and Serbia, about 44 percent; outside former Yugoslavia, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland host the biggest Bosnian diasporas.

Emigration is more than just about jobs and money.

[02:40]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: People find it difficult to meet their needs and aspirations, which is why they decide to leave and seek their future in departure.

[02:48]

PETER KORCHNAK: According to the Balkan Public Barometer poll by the Regional Cooperation Council, 68 percent of Bosnians are dissatisfied with the way their country is heading.

There is a large number of people waiting in the wings to follow the departees. A 2018 survey by Gallup found that 32 percent of Bosnians want to leave the country, second only behind Kosovo; worse, 57 percent of the Bosnian youth wish to head for the exits.

In this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: Bosnia’s great emigration and what can be done about it.

But first, remember you make this story possible. I am so grateful to everyone who has joined Remembering Yugoslavia as a monthly sustaining supporter or a spontaneous one-time donor. Welcome and thank you new sustainers, Patrick and Sebastiaan. Thank you, Megan, for tripling your pledge. And thank you, Marc and Valery, for your contributions.

If you like the show, join these and many other generous people in supporting Remembering Yugoslavia and me in making it. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate to make a contribution today.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

[03:53]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: My name is Daniela Majstorović, and I was born in 1978, in the former Yugoslavia, in a small town in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina called Bihać. And this town, I fled in 1992. And then since the war ended, I lived a very nomadic life.

[04:14]

PETER KORCHNAK: Majstorović has lived, studied, or worked in the US, Canada, and Germany. She spoke with me from Frankfurt just a few days before concluding a 3-year stay there and returning to Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she teaches at the university. In addition to her academic work, Majstorović has been an activist in Banja Luka, involved in numerous protests and causes.

[04:34]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: I’ve always had this desire to oscillate between here and there. So, you know, whenever I was in Bosnia, I wanted to be somewhere else, when I was somewhere else I wanted to be in Bosnia. So maybe it has to do with personality, but it also had to do with certain chances and opportunities.

As a young person in Bosnia after the war, I had all these opportunities like many other people of my generation to study in the US, UK. You know, I would say we just used all those opportunities to get good education, to travel. And now it’s time again to go back to Bosnia.

If you ask me today, I would probably say that I made some wrong decisions, because I’m now in my early 40s, and it’s not that we haven’t tried, you know—when I say we, I would think of this entire community of like progressive, left-leaning, feminists, intellectuals, activists, whatnot. And I think we somehow may have spent this opportunity to create something new, to create something from scratch.

But when I look at the political situation right now in Bosnia, in the past, it would be like, “Okay, we can make things better, we can change something…” Now, what I feel the most, especially with the, you know, the way how things have been treated, like dealing with the past, dealing with COVID, privatizations, and whatnot, I mostly feel disgust. And I feel sadness because like many of my interlocutors here in Germany, they often repeated, “We don’t want our kids to grow up there.”

As one of my friends who was a political asylum seeker said, you know, “There’s nothing to love there anymore.” So that’s why I’m so concerned. I’m kind of concerned that there isn’t much left to be loved there. Especially when I’m no longer a young scholar. You know, I’ve been a seasoned scholar, I’ve tried many things, I’ve been part of many initiatives. And I really, really don’t see much hope. So it’s going to be a challenge to reinvent oneself and to kind of start anew at the tender age of 43 in Bosnia.

[06:40]

PETER KORCHNAK: And yet, note that Majstorović is still going back. We’ll get to why she’s returning later on in the show.

Now, let’s meet Samir Beharić. Born in 1991 in Jajce, his family during the war were Internally Displaced Persons, basically domestic refugees, in Zenica, returning to their hometown in 1997.

[06:58]

SAMIR BEHARIĆ: After my high school, I did something that, you know, my mom was ashamed of: I took two gap years, which no one does, you know, she was like “Samir, how can you?” you know, I was like I was working in Youth Center Jajce, I was coordinating international projects. And even if you ask me now, what are the two most useful years of my life? It’s exactly these two years, between high school and university, where I coordinated international projects from Erasmus Plus program, from European Voluntary Service, you know, hosting international volunteers in Jajce, you know. And it was, it was then when I realized, you know, that in order to achieve anything, we need to build international alliances and we need to stretch out and branch out outside of Jajce and outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina and outside of Europe. And therefore, I enrolled at the Faculty of Political Science in 2012, and since then I have studied and worked in seven countries across three different continents.

[07:58]

PETER KORCHNAK: Including traineeships in the US Congress and the European Parliament.

[08:02]

SAMIR BEHARIĆ: My path it was a lot of circulation. I have like, usually these discussions, you know, when people ask, like, “Do you want definitely leave the country?” And my definite answer is no. I don’t want definitely to leave, I want definitely to circulate.

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The Causes of Bosnian Emigration

[08:17]

PETER KORCHNAK: So here are two Bosnians, educated and experienced at home and abroad, who circulate in and out of Bosnia and Herzegovina, getting education or work experience abroad and returning to their country to do what they do. Their stories hint at a possible remedy to the problem of mass emigration in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

But before we talk about solutions, let’s take a look at how we got here.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Waving Goodbye” by Ketsa]

The Bosnian diaspora is a result of three waves of emigration, each triggered by different causes.

The first wave of emigration from Bosnia and Herzegovina took place in the 1960s and 70s, when Bosnians—and other Yugoslavs—went mostly to West Germany for work. There they became die Gastarbeiter, or guest workers. Taking advantage of West Germany’s guest worker program and Yugoslavia’s recruitment agreements with that country as well as Austria, France, Switzerland, and Sweden, these Yugoslavs left for economic reasons—as rapidly as Yugoslavia was developing, the poorer, less developed areas like Bosnia and Herzegovina were not catching up fast enough.

They also left because they could. Yugoslavia was the only socialist country with unemployment and open borders. Though the idea was for these Gasterbeiters to return to Yugoslavia, many of them stayed or went back and forth. In 1971, the Yugoslav Foreign Affairs Ministry counted approximately 551,000 Gastarbeiter abroad. To this day the word for guest worker in BCMS languages is gastarbajter.

The second wave of migrations took place in the 1990s because of the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, from 1992 to 1995, about 105,000 persons were killed, and some 2.2 million were displaced, half internally, that is with Bosnia and Herzegovina, like Beharić’s family, half ended up abroad. In other words, over a million Bosnians who live abroad, or about two thirds of the diaspora, emigrated as a result of the armed conflict in their country. In one survey, 89 percent of Bosnians abroad who had emigrated in the 1990s said they did so because of the war.

[10:11]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: And now what we’re witnessing is the third wave. Of course, people have been moving back and forth between these waves, but I call them waves because we’re talking about larger portions of populations.

I was also in a way part of this third wave.

One of my interlocutors is a woman who who is actually one of my best friends here who is a child of the first-wave Bosnian Gastarbeiters who worked for Siemens in a small town close to Frankfurt. They worked in the 60s, 70s, and in the 80s, late 80s. They were like done, they wanted to come back while their daughter, my friend, was finishing high school. She was born in 1970s, so she was what 20 something when the war started. So her parents waited and waited, it was like, yeah, let’s buy this washing machine, let’s get this, let’s get that and then we will retire and go to Bosnia. And then guess what: the war started. And so their daughter, literally, who was a student, she then who spoke no German came to Germany in the early 90s, in 1992, where her parents were at. And so she became [a] second wave migrant. And now she works at a job where she’s helping the third wave migrants and her son is now second generation second wave.

[11:32]

PETER KORCHNAK: There is no one reason people have for emigrating from Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to surveys, emigrants’ reasons are a combination of political, economic, and social factors: lack of employment opportunities, low salaries, bad work environment and treatment of workers, corruption and nepotism, legal uncertainty, various forms of discrimination (including because of ethnic or political affiliation or gender), insufficient or low-quality social services like health care and education, and so on. People are drawn by better opportunities, prospects, and quality of life abroad.

Whatever the individual factors, or the combination thereof, generally speaking—

[12:07]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: People are leaving because they’re not happy.

There was a lot of elation, when the war ended, we all felt very hopeful, you know, but this was like 26 years ago, and very few things changed.

It’s also hard to even run a business. You have to be associated with these political parties. And people find it difficult.

[12:25]

PETER KORCHNAK: Some of these issues stem from the country’s complicated and now entrenched constitutional and institutional set up. I’ve dedicated an entire episode to the outcomes of the Dayton Peace Agreement, that’s Episode 18, “Peace and Division in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” By way of summary, let’s say that Dayton—

[12:40]

NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: —has compartmentalised us in a way.

[12:43]

PETER KORCHNAK: Nela Porobić Isaković is the coordinator of Women’s International League of Peace & Freedom’s project Women Organizing for Change in Bosnia.

[12:51]

NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: The Peace Agreement itself is very much about boxing in stuff. So you have, you know, return process, it’s one box, then you have the human rights in the other, the justice in the third, the security in the fourth, etcetera. So everything was sort of seen as separate pieces. And I think this compartmentalization, or compartmentalized thinking rubbed itself off.

Nothing really seems as interlinked and that everything seemingly can be addressed separately. We have this massive emigration, really, and it is massive, so when they really talking about it, talk about it in terms, for example, “Oh, we need to create jobs for youth,” as if you know, massive emigration is not a question of this overall situation our country finds itself in and that, you know, the complete absence of mechanisms that at least hold, you know, a promise of a brighter, better future. And yes, you know, jobs are part of that, but there is so much more. So they fail to see like, there’s one problem, we solve it with one activity. They fail to see the full set of complexity of the situation.

[13:56]

PETER KORCHNAK: And though the war may have taken place a generation ago, the country is still dealing with it. Or maybe not which is the bigger problem.

[14:02]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: Still, we haven’t dealt with it, issues of memorization of remembering the past, of memory politics, and stuff like that. That still hasn’t really worked in Bosnia. And you know, with this generation of mothers and fathers who lost their children in the war, these narratives are going to pretty much die. Like it’s really shameful, like how some journalists still suffer for raising issues about what was happening in the 90s wars.

People find it difficult to meet their needs and aspirations, which is why they decide to leave and seek their future in departure.

So you know, to take that and then to take this really, really poor economic situation, and the fact that somebody can kill your son and not be held accountable for it, people were— they’ve just had it. They were like, Look, you know, nothing’s going to change here. It’s hopeless, let’s, let’s catch, as they say in Serbo-Croatian, let’s catch this last train before it’s too late.

[14:55]

PETER KORCHNAK: In March 2018, a 21-year-old Banja Lukan, David Dragičević, went missing and was later found dead. While the police claimed his death was an accident, his parents claimed—and their claims are supported by investigative journalists—that he had been murdered and the police were covering it up. The affair provoked a year of daily mass protests, calling for and named Justice for David. The case has been reclassified as a murder but has yet to be resolved. David Dragičević’s father went into hiding outside the country because of harassment by the authorities.

[15:23]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: So people have started to occupy public spaces, to demand justice, to demand that their, you know, grievances be heard, and whatnot. And we are now witnessing the shaking of the public sphere in the protests particularly in these two cases of protests for Justice for David Dragičević and Dženan Memić.

[15:42]

PETER KORCHNAK: The case of Dženan Memić is similar to that of David Dragičević in that his murder in 2016 has also not been resolved and both the state and organized crime are suspected of involvement.

Prior to 2018, Bosnia saw a huge popular upswell in 2014 against unemployment, corruption, and political gridlock. Majstorović was a participant. Those protests, which spread from Tuzla to other cities, were dubbed the Bosnian Spring and often turned violent. But like all previous and subsequent protests, the Bosnian Spring ran out of steam, or rather, people power.

[16:13]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: People who try to organize these these big protests, etcetera, I think that people have been starting feeling some sort of fatigue. And this is something that I can also very much identify with, especially because I’m now this middle generation of scholars, of activists of, let’s say, left-leaning thinkers, whatever in the country.

[16:36]

PETER KORCHNAK: Majstorović was involved in the creation of the Banja Luka Social Center where she worked for four years alongside teaching at the university.

[16:42]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: I mean really look forward to seeing anything that’s really working there. But it’s super hard because sometimes, you know, as they say in this REM song, sometimes everything is wrong. I really had the motivation, in my younger days to change it, to change it with a community of like-minded people. And it’s not that we haven’t tried, you know, but it’s just that there was never— maybe the historical moment was right.

When you accept that, you know, we’ve done what we could, I think that this fatigue is really kicking in, especially if you’re a certain age, like 40s-50s. I sometimes wish we had more political ambition, like in the sense of like, progressive politics. But some people try that and they always say, you know, it’s we’re too few you know, we’re a minority, we’d have to like play with the devil and nobody wants to do it.

And migration was a strategy embraced by most people as they did not appear to use struggle and resistance, let’s say, in public occupation of spaces or regular politics as feasible.

[17:44]

PETER KORCHNAK: Protesting is one of the strategies Bosnians use to resist the political order in their country; emigration is another.

Majstorović explores the two resistance strategies in her upcoming book Discourse and Affect in Postsocialist Bosnia and Herzegovina: Peripheral Selves, out in October from Palgrave (I’ll be running a giveaway then so follow Remembering Yugoslavia on Instagram or Facebook and keep an eye out).

Majstorović maintains that the practices of protest and emigration “are not just the direct consequences of but are also embedded in the postsocialist transition” still taking place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She uses a postcolonial lens to document and make sense of political, economic, and ideological developments in her post-socialist, post-war country, which she labels as the periphery.

So. Structural problems created in large part by the legacy of war and the Dayton Peace Agreement, a general sense of dismay about the divided country, and powerlessness at the lack of prospects in a dire, corrupt economy are the principal reasons for the country’s high emigration rates.

What about the other end of the rope? At the same time that there has been a push from Bosnia and Herzegovina, there has been a pull from Germany where Majstorović spent the last three years.

[18:52]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: Germany opened the door for the shortage of workforce, which is predominantly care work, construction workers, cleaning. And so a lot of the people from Bosnia and Herzegovina saw this as a chance to come usually to occupy these low paid positions.

[19:10]

PETER KORCHNAK: Low-paid for Germany that is. According to the IMF, this year Germany’s GDP per capita at purchasing power parity is 48,000 euros, which is 3 times higher than Bosnia’s. Germany’s monthly minimum wage of 1,632 euros towers over Bosnia’s 266 euros.

In 2018, Germany passed a law called the Western Balkans Regulation intended to attract workers from the region to remedy chronic labor shortages in the sectors of cleaning, construction, and care work. Bosnians have been taken advantage of this open door in droves: some 100,000 Bosnians came to Germany in this period.

[19:45]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: Yugos— or they call themselves Yugos, it’s so funny that you are no longer a Serb, Croat, or Bosniak, you’re just a Yugo in Germany, and this is the term that Germans use—of course, there’s a lot of interrelatedness and a lot of networking going on in terms of jobs before COVID hit a lot of the Yugos in Frankfurt owned bars and restaurants. So these jobs or Baustelle—this is a German term for construction—Baustelle never stopped, like not even in COVID, they worked, you know, they never really took a day break, cleaning, informal jobs, all these things that all kept running.

Germany made it easier for people coming from Bosnia to come and start a new life here. So there’s been a need, I think that need is slowly becoming met.

[20:32]

PETER KORCHNAK: A man dies and goes to Heaven. Having lived a life of action he gets bored quickly. He asks St. Peter if he could visit hell. “It’s never been done but I’ll make an exception for you,” says St. Peter. “One month in Hell.” At the gates of Hell, beautiful women open a limousine door for the man and they go to a big yacht loaded with the best food and drinks and they fish and they frolic, it’s a dream. When the man gets back to Heaven, he gets bored even more and even more quickly. So he asks St. Peter to let him go to Hell again. “If you like it so much,” says St. Peter, “you can go but you can never return.” The man agrees. But as soon as the gates of Hell close behind him, he falls into an abyss and lands in a boiling pot full of screaming guys like him. “What’s this?” he asks the Devil. The Devil says, “This is Hell, brother, and you don’t seem to know the difference between tourism and emigration.”

[SOUND EFFECT – “Joke Drums”]

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[21:19]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: It’s not, of course, all roses in the West. For a lot of people, including myself, like a lot of educated people, it’s really difficult. You’ve studied your whole life, you’ve written books and papers, and, you know, in Switzerland or in Germany unless you really have not just a strong linguistic ability, you also have to have connections. It’s not just, you know, that I show up in Berlin, and I get a professor’s job, it doesn’t work like that.

Even for Germans this dream of like, literally coming from working class, or a farm, and then, you know, getting an education and becoming middle class, that’s not working for Germans, either anymore, it’s really, really becoming hard. So, you know, a lot of people have said to me, “Look, you know, I don’t want to—” this is funny, they always say, “I don’t want to wipe people’s butts in Germany,” you know, because they know that they can get these jobs, but they cannot become journalists or professors, or doctors unless they have done some higher education in Germany.

There is a number of scholars who left in the 90s. And, you know, for some of them, I think it was easier but I think it was easier generally to get academic jobs back then.

For Bosnians, the sort of white collar jobs available to them in the West have been IT, programming, that kind of stuff, but only for some who were actually the children of the second wave migrants, and who in the 90s got what Germans called up Abschiemung, who basically were deported when the war in Bosnia ended and who were literally sent back home in 1998, 1999. When these children who already had very high level of German in 2014, 2015 looked for jobs with their, let’s say, medical doctors diplomas in Germany, those were the ones who were able to get to continue working as doctors in Germany, because their level was very high, there was the need, of course, a lot of the clientele speaks Serbo-Croatian. So you know, for very, very few of those, there were opportunities to work as a dentist or as doctors, ITs, but for the vast majority, it’s these low paid jobs. It’s, as I said, Baustelle, restaurants, cleaning, and care work.

[23:33]

PETER KORCHNAK: “Do something for your fatherland! Emigrate!”

[SOUND EFFECT – “Joke Drums”]

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[23:37]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: Everybody’s happy: German economy’s happy, Bosnian politicians are happy, Bosnians and Herzegovinans who left are happy. So this is like a win win situation. It’s no wonder why there is a there is an agency German agency in Bosnia called Triple Win. Literally everybody wins. But of course, this is said jokingly.

[23:57]

PETER KORCHNAK: Germans get a cheap labor force for jobs Germans don’t want to do. Bosnians get to make a lot more money than back home, take care of their families, have a decent life, save for retirement. And Bosnian politicians benefit too. People who emigrate are the most dissatisfied and action-oriented, and since those who leave are by default not there to protest and make problems for the political elite, you get the picture.

[24:18]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: Third wave Bosnian migrants they accept more marginalization but accept it under their own terms hoping to create better lives for their children if not for themselves. There’s this this is a very I would say Balkan trait of like you know, “I’m doing it for the children you know, I will suffer I will work, but then my kid will go to German school my kid will become fully integrated. fully German and my kid won’t have those problems.”

And I’m as a mother, you know, when I ask myself like, do I want to raise my child in Bosnia I’m just happy that he was born in Canada, he has Canadian passport that really keeps me happy at night. Because I know that at least he will have a chance to study in Canada, maybe us or something, if he’s smart, I don’t know what was gonna happen with him.

[25:02]

PETER KORCHNAK: Bosnia’s culture-makers have commented on the emigration issue.

[25:05]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: One of my favorite Bosnian singers, Damir Imamović, he’s done some modern takes on sevdah and there is this line that very often repeated by this third wave migrants [SINGS] “Ljepa zeno ja se vraćat neću…,” “Beautiful Zena, I’m not coming back home.”

[25:21]

PETER KORCHNAK: Perhaps the best known act in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dubioza Kolektiv, are all about social and political critique. Emigration is one of the issues they tackle in their production. They open “Pionirska,” “The Pioneer Song,” with the lines, “We will send the youth abroad to work / To dig trenches and paint houses.” In “USA,” well, listen for yourself. And buy their music and swag!

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “USA” by Dubioza Kolektiv]

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[29:32]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: There is this whole, love-hate relationship which you have in your country. But then with the practicality hits, when reality hits and you start thinking, “Okay, if I’m jobless, if I can’t provide for my children, then what do I have,” like, this beautiful nature and nothing else?

I think Bosnia has, of course, a lot of potential, but it takes a community, it takes a right historical moment, it takes a right politics. And with a lot of the people who could have done it now, asylum seekers gone, emigrants, it’s going to be very, very hard, going to be very, very hard because we become a country of like old people.

To have this critical stance towards what’s going on, politically in the context where I was born, it’s almost as if we’ve been oppressed or peripheralized two or three times: by our own politicians, by the international community by, you know, whoever, It’s always like this peripheralization, it’s always this denial of something, it’s always this lack, you know, that you’re struggling again. So it’s never like the normal life like whatever normal life is.

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The Effects of Bosnian Emigration

[30:41]

PETER KORCHNAK: So what’s all this emigration doing to Bosnia and Herzegovina?

[30:44]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: It’s killing it. You know, it’s killing the country.

It’s a tragedy, it’s really losing, it’s already lost some of its best people and it’s continued to lose these people as we speak. So you know, as we speak, some people are packing their suitcases and are getting ready to leave.

[30:59]

PETER KORCHNAK: A 2012 analysis by the European Commission underscored that emigration negatively impacts Bosnia and Herzegovina’s labor market. For various reasons, including Dayton and its legacy, people don’t move much for work within the country. So in areas where significant numbers of people emigrated, particularly along borders, there are shortages of skilled labor while in others unemployment is high.

The effect of brain drain is not unique to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but in a situation where, in 2005, 80 percent of PhD graduates were found to have emigrated, it’s a big problem.

[31:31]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: There’s less and less students every year because all these parents, people who I studied here in Germany, you know, their kids, instead of enrolling at the Faculty of Philosophy or Philology in Sarajevo or Banja Luka, they’re enrolling in Ausbildung programs here in Germany. Everybody knows it, we’re closing down schools, there’s less and less students at the uni, so the future is very, very uncertain.

[31:52]

PETER KORCHNAK: And the country’s problems are so entrenched that even remittances, which about a third of Bosnia’s households receive from their relatives abroad, have little effect on poverty or generally the economic situation.

In all, emigration compounds Bosnia and Herzegovina’s problems.

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Emigration from Bosnia and Herzegovina: Some Solutions

So what is to be done?

[32:08]

SAMIR BEHARIĆ: In Bosnia, we have like this discussion about brain drain, but rarely we discuss brain circulation or brain retention and brain gain, especially. This is I think what should be discussed in order for us to generate new ideas for prosperous Western Balkans, not just Bosnia and Herzegovina because we cannot speak about Bosnia and Herzegovina without speaking about the region.

[32:29]

PETER KORCHNAK: Like Danijela Majstorović, the university professor, Samir Beharić keeps returning to Bosnia and Herzegovina after his education or work experience stints in the West. He is an activist, for the desegregation of schools, the protection of Bosnia’s rivers, youth, human rights, and assorted other causes. He writes and gives talks, including internationally, about solutions to the migration problem. Check out his Twitter, too.

[32:50]

SAMIR BEHARIĆ: I do not want to go abroad for going abroad. If I would go abroad, it would be with the purpose of working for the region and for my country.

I can also work for my country within Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is there are more things to be fixed here in Bosnia, than, for example, in Vienna. And I think I can contribute much more and much better in the region or for Bosnia, than working in a consultancy in Brussels, or, you know, in an organization in Washington.

There are a lot of regional initiatives, also state initiatives, which are not strictly related to, you know, governmental institutions. But I really do think with the knowledge, context and skills that I have gathered abroad, both academically and non-academically, that I can contribute in Bosnia much more than I would be able to contribute somewhere abroad.

And if my knowledge is needed here, I would be very, very, very glad to use it for achieving and bringing Bosnia closer to the EU, closer to the NATO, and offering young people, you know, [a] more prosperous future.

[33:54]

PETER KORCHNAK: I’ve been using the word emigration to encompass everyone who leaves the country. But there are various types of migration. Permanent emigration aside, where people leave without the intent of returning, or returning after a long period of time, a lot of the migration out of Bosnia and Herzegovina is temporary, as in the case of Majstorović and Beharić.

In a 2019 survey a quarter of respondents across genders and education levels expressed a desire for temporary migration. People migrate for seasonal work, like in tourism in Croatia and Montenegro. A large number of migrants to Germany return after a year or two when their temporary contracts expire; in 2017, 26,000 Bosnians left for Germany while 14,000 returned.

People return not just for the legal or logistical reasons. Emotional reasons play a large part too: people miss their friends and family, they lack a sense of belonging in their host country, they want to retire at home. Or, like Beharić, they want to invest the money and knowledge they gained back in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

[34:51]

SAMIR BEHARIĆ: I also serve as a board member of the Western Balkans Alumni Association. That’s a very much a regional, regional NGO set up by the European Commission. And this organization is gathering young people from the Western Balkans region who have been studying abroad, and then who decided to return to the region. And with this organization and with other organizations dealing with migration, we have been developing a set of activities and ideas on how to solve brain drain or how to turn it into brain circulation.

I’m very much sorry that both the politicians and politicians in the region are not just copy-pasting what China has been doing for decades; what Eastern European countries like Poland has been doing in terms of, you know, bringing their talent, their highly educated young people from abroad; what Ireland has been doing in that sense. So what we have been proposing is a series of policy requirements, basically, reforms in first of all [the] educational sector, health sector, governmental sector, public administration sector, that would, first of all, enable young people who are studying and working abroad, that would enable them and motivate them to come back.

For example, very plastic example, are Bosnian PhD students who are studying genetics. I have friends who studied genetics on PhD level in Italy, in Norway. Two of them, both of them, they told me, “Samir, we would love to come back. But we would be useless in Bosnia, because there is no infrastructure that would allow us to work. Because what we do is like very, very nitty gritty details in genetics and in medicine, we cannot do this in Bosnia, we cannot practice you know, what we are what we are taught.”

So what we are trying to achieve is to bring European Commission and Western Balkans governments in funding, for example, regional exchange programs between universities. Because, believe it or not, it’s easier for Bosnian students to go abroad and to study for one year in Russia, in Turkey, in China, than to go for one semester abroad and to study in Belgrade, in Podgorica, in Skopje. We need to change that, we need to allow our young people, students to circulate and migrate throughout the region.

We meet each other on quote unquote neutral ground abroad, you know. I met a lot of people from the region, I met them in Germany. Why couldn’t I meet them here in the region? And if we keep our young people, if we give them resources, opportunities, both in education, in government, in science, in technology, if we give them prospects here in the region, we would boost the brain circulation within the region that would keep our smartest, highly educated young people, you know, stay in the region, and then, you know, invest their energy, time, knowledge, and money in the region and not somewhere abroad.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to recent research by the Institute for Development and Research in Belgrade, spends around 800 million euros a year in educating its young people who later just go abroad and never come back. And this is something that we need to change.

[38:15]

PETER KORCHNAK: If Beharić’s story of circular migration hints at solutions it also points to challenges. He is highly educated, he’s had some prominent and quite exclusive work experiences, and he has Western institutional backing for his activities. So I had to ask him how he would convince an average young person who is considering emigrating from today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina to stay.

[38:35]

SAMIR BEHARIĆ: It would be very hard. I mean, if I would be a politician, I would tell you fairy tales, you know. I’m not in favor of people staying. I am in favor of people going, leaving, and then coming back. And I’m saying this also for the students. I tell them—and I’m very open about this, and my university professors, you know, they get mad when they hear me saying this—when it comes to education, especially higher education in Bosnia and Herzegovina, run away. Run away, go abroad, study, and then come back. I mean I’m saying this from my own experience. Higher education in Bosnia and Herzegovina is not teaching people how to think, it’s teaching them what to think. And I would not like to see young people educated in that kind of environment.

According to a Pisa of study that was that was conducted, I think, in 2018, a huge chunk of Bosnian, students in primary school are systemically illiterate, which means they cannot analyze a story from their textbook, they cannot analyze it. They can say what they have read, but they are not capable of saying the message of that story. And this is the biggest problem long term for our young generations. And especially if we are in a situation, you know, where young people are hungry, when they are desperate, when their parents are unemployed, we cannot feed them with patriotism, you know. Being a patriot doesn’t fill your stomach.

[39:57]

PETER KORCHNAK: Pre-COVID official unemployment stood at over 18 percent; it’s worse for Bosnians aged 20 to 34: their unemployment stands at nearly 50 percent.

[40:05]

SAMIR BEHARIĆ: If I would be a politician, I wouldn’t try to convince young people to stay by words, I would try to work on the ground and offer them jobs. And jobs would convince them to stay, I wouldn’t. Words and patriotism will not fill up their stomach to the level that they will be happy to stay.

[40:23]

PETER KORCHNAK: Nela Porobić Isaković, of the Women’s International League of Peace & Freedom, is a different kind of returnee. A second wave migrant, in the 1990s as a refugee with her family, she came back for a job. Though it is not only the job that keeps her in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

[40:38]

NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: My return was a little bit accidental. Because when I first came back to Bosnia, I was given a junior professional position for one year at the office of High Representative in the political department in Mostar. And then I ended up staying 14 years later with two kids and, you know, wondering myself, “What the hell am I doing here?” but also unable to leave. not for any sort of material or physical sense, but I just can’t get myself to leave again.

And I think, what made me stay, those years—I came back in 2006—these were the last years of—from the war up to 2006, maybe up to ‘10, somewhere in that range—there was this sense that things were changing. You know, immediately after the war, everything that was moving forward seemed for the better, you know, buildings being rebuilt… Everything seems as a positive change, in the sense that things were there were possibilities. And I think maybe that was part of a lure to stay.

But then also, I think when we look at the global context and the way things started shifting and 9/11 and everything, I just don’t know a country anymore that does not have problems. And then this is a global issue, you know. And that also, you know, part of the solution to Bosnia is no longer just, you know, something that you can deal with within Bosnia, this is like a global revolution.

[42:15]

PETER KORCHNAK: Speaking of political change needed to improve things inside the country, Majstorović believes that some of the energy for it has to come from the emigrants.

[42:22]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: I think that mobilizing diaspora to vote is also a way to go. I think so far diaspora of all three waves have been really dormant and lazy. But that could be a potential avenue really to kind of, you know, tip the scales.

[42:37]

PETER KORCHNAK: Meanwhile, Beharić, the youth activist, sees the country’s young people as its future.

[42:41]

SAMIR BEHARIĆ: I do think that young people need to make their hands dirty and enter the system, otherwise, they will not be able to succeed. Among young people, students, we have this notion, you know, we ask from politicians to give our their rights. They will need not give you their rights, they will not even give you like even pieces of their power, you need to think for yourself, you know, take it, do not ask for it, do not demand it, just take it, just grab it. And I really think people need to enter politics, and need to change this. I mean, I’m not saying about changing the system from within, they need to dismantle the system and make a society on your own terms, a society that you want to live in.

And when I say young people need to make their hands dirty, I do not mean, you know, they need to become corrupt, they need to become politicians. I mean, it’s like, in a way as if every farmer makes his or her hands dirty, when taking the potato out of the ground. The dirtier the hands, the tastier the potato. The potato, in our sense, is politics, society, and environment in which young people and their children, their future children, want to live and not just live but prosper. And currently, now at this very moment. I do not see a prosperous future for my children.

However, I do think we need to fight and I’m also an optimist.

[44:01]

PETER KORCHNAK: Majstorović, too, isn’t giving up on her country. It’ll be difficult to return and to stay, she says, but she plans to do what she loves.

[44:08]

DANIJELA MAJSTOROVIĆ: We just somehow have to realize that these moments of pandemic, you know, climate change, you know, being like victims and really suffering in this really rampant capitalism, both in the center and periphery, is not working for us, it’s working against us. So I think that, trying to create, even on a smaller scale, like, what you can do, the little things we can do for our friends, community, like, I think that’s what counts. So, you know, taking it small.

Two things that I’ll be working on when I go back to Bosnia that really speak about where I want to engage, on what fronts, is this program called Radio Migrant. And this is the first time that I’m actually revealing this. A group of us, five people, we’re going to start also series of podcasts on South Eastern Europe called Radio Migrant. We’re going to bring into dialogue, not just scholars, not just journalists, but also precarious workers from the entire Southeast Europe, including Bulgaria, including Albania, Romania, also former Yugoslavia, so Radio Migrant is one thing.

And then another thing that’s been really something that, I don’t know, I’ve just found so much pleasure in it lately: the new feminist poetic voices. So I would really like to document the new feminist voices, poetic voices, mostly poets coming from the former Yugoslav region. And they’ve never been louder, they’ve never been better. There’s some great names, I would just like to see this anthology of feminist post-YU poetry.

[45:44]

PETER KORCHNAK: Another optimist advocating for what amounts to circular migration is Elma Hodžić, the curator at the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. You’ve heard from her in Episode 9, “Das Ist Museum,” and she’ll have the last word today.

[45:56]

ELMA HODŽIĆ: I really feel that Bosnia-Herzegovina is my home. I really and firmly believe that our small steps can make big changes. I was very lucky to be one of the rarest art historians of my generation that found a job and I think I found my place here.

I’m not sure I know that I will stay because I will probably need some other challenges in my life. I will have to find a PhD opportunity. I will have to move maybe to other parts of the world in order to become a better Bosnian or to become a better citizen of the world. I’m not still sure there, but I think that by traveling we learn a lot, we have the possibility to exchange experiences.

Each time that I stay in Bosnia for, let’s say, two months I become very depressive [sic]. I have to leave Bosnia in order to, you know, make some emotional disconnection and to find some new ideas, some new triggers, somewhere in Slovenia and in England and everywhere and to come back to my country, to my home.

I think that all of us, we can contribute to a lot. We have beautiful nature, we have a lot of history and we have good people, and I think that we can do a lot with ideas and with a bit of patience.

I know that it can be very difficult to live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but I really recommend to my generation to find some sort of a balance between living abroad and living in Bosnia.

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[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Welcome Departure” by Ketsa]

[47:42]

PETER KORCHNAK: I, too, emigrated from my country, Slovakia, twenty years ago. It wasn’t necessarily for lack of prospects – I have plenty of friends who have good jobs and businesses there. It wasn’t necessarily about money either, though of course the salary differential is substantial (minimum wage in Oregon where I live is three times higher than Slovakia’s). For as long as I remember, I wanted to travel, to experience and to live in other countries.

Especially after accession to the EU in 2004, thousands of Slovaks shifted westward (Croatia experienced a similar brain and brawn drain a decade later). But nowadays there’s talk in Slovakia and other newish EU countries about my and even younger generations of people increasingly returning from abroad to live and work in their countries of origin. Though I have a different plan, I don’t discount the possibility of retiring in my homeland. Home-home, as I call it, will never cease to call.

The activist and recipient of the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize for her good works, Maida Bilal, told me that Bosnia and Herzegovina is her homeland and she wants to stay. It’s a good country that’s full of smart and educated people who can change it for the better from within. Plus being with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues is better for your soul. When the emigrés visit for the summer holidays, as thousands of Bosnians do, you can tell they’re suffering, she told me. They miss their home, they miss their people. She was adamant: The solution to the country’s woes isn’t to leave, it’s to stay and fight.

As long as there are people like Maida Bilal in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country stands a chance. As long as circular migrants like Samir Beharić and Danijela Majstorović keep returning and fighting, the country stands a chance. And as long as there are those who stay and take small steps for positive change on a daily basis, like Nela Porobić Isaković and Elma Hodžić, the country stands a chance.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]

[49:43]

PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia.

MARIA VIVOD: To my knowledge, this kind of practice to hire criminals went back to the 60s. Yugoslavia started hiring people to clean up the mess abroad.

PETER KORCHNAK: On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: Yugoslav spies, assassins, and criminals and their state security overlords.

Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe so you won’t miss out.

[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]

[50:23]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.

Want more Yugoslavia more often? I’ve launched a weekly email digest of all things Yugoslavia…and this project. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Join to sign up.

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Ketsa and Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. Special thanks to Martin Petkovski and Dubioza Kolektiv – buy their music and swag!

I am Peter Korchňak.

Ćao!

Additional Sources

  • Domazet, Ando et al. Održivost emigracija iz Bosne i Hercegovine. Sarajevo: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2020
  • Efendic, Adnan. How Migration, Human Capital, and the Labour Market Interact in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Torino: European Training Foundation, 2021
  • Hadzic, Faruk et al. Socio-ekonomiski efekti iseljavania stanovništva iz BiH – Trenutno stanje i perspektive. Conference paper. Bihać: Univerzitet u Bihaću, 2020.
  • Kačapor-Džihić, Zehra and Nermin Oruč. Social Impact of Emigration and Rural-Urban Migration in Central and Eastern Europe: Final Country Report Bosnia and Herzegovina. European Commission, April 2012
  • Majstorović, Danijela. Discourse and Affect in Postsocialist Bosnia and Herzegovina: Peripheral Selves. Palgrave: 2021 (forthcoming)
  • Turčilo, Lejla et al, eds. Youth in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2018-2019. Berlin: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2019

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