The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recently published a research report, prepared in cooperation with IPSOS and proMENTE, exploring the attitudes of 18-29 year-olds in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) between January and March 2021. The study aims to identify the main socio-economic factors that push youth emigration from BiH while considering elements such as age, educational attainment, political and civic participation, and employment status. According to the findings, respondents indicate that their decisions to emigrate from BiH are heavily influenced by social and political instability, enduring unemployment, and the absence of policies that specifically target the problems facing young people.
The report’s publication coincides with warnings from experts, politicians, and journalists from all around the world that a new conflict in BiH could be on the horizon. According to many experts, and BiH High Representative Christian Schmidt’s report to the United Nations Security Council, BiH is facing its greatest political and security crisis since signing the Dayton Peace Agreement 26 years ago.
Milorad Dodik, the Serb Member of the three-person Presidency of BiH and leader of the country’s Serb-majority entity Republika Srpska (RS), has threatened secession by withdrawing the entity from BiH’s state level bodies including the armed forces, judiciary, and tax and custom agencies. Dodik has been known for his separatist ideas since becoming prime minister of the RS in 2006, but today’s power vacuum in BiH and the wider region have created an environment that facilitates these inclinations. The EU’s failed enlargement policies and the US’s decade-long disengagement from the region have provided Russia with an opportunity to increase its influence, so much so in fact that the legitimacy of the recently appointed BiH High Representative has come under question.
Released on 17 November, the UFPA survey shows that only 10 percent of young respondents were completely satisfied with their living standards in BiH, and only 27 percent believed that the standard of living in their area was improving. More importantly, 44 percent agreed that they felt insecure due to the possibility of inter-ethnic tension while almost 25 percent neither agreed nor disagreed. One can assume that this 25 percent still believes in the possibility of inter-ethnic tension after the recent crisis. At the same time, 66 percent of young Bosnian and Herzegovinians said that they can express themselves freely, that they do not feel discriminated against, and that people treat them with respect and dignity.
It can be surmised that young people interact with one another on a more regular basis than with the older generation, and thereby they may feel the possibility of interethnic tension not from their peers, as they do not feel discriminated against, but from the older generation that holds on to the wartime traumas and memories. From this point of view, the recent and intensifying political crisis makes young people feel more insecure and neglected, paving the way for them to consider emigration as a means of escaping the perceived vicious circle of violence.
Regarding youth political and civic engagement, one key finding of the survey is young people’s low interest in either formal or semi-formal types of participation. This may be due to the fact that 70 percent of respondents saw BiH society as systemically corrupt. Yet it is unlikely that young Bosnians will change the system, as 23 percent seek to leave the country temporarily and 24 percent permanently. In fact, more than 40 percent want to leave the country by next year, while 35 percent seek to leave in one to two or more years. Worse still, this is not a new trend. According to unofficial figures, from the end of the war in 1995 to 2013, 150,000 young people left the country.
High unemployment rates compound the problem, and young people’s attitudes towards finding employment are not very encouraging. Young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina do not perceive expertise, skills, or competencies as key factors in gaining employment. Rather they consider having acquaintances and connections with people in power as the most important factors in finding a job. The findings of the UNFPA’s recent report confirm previous research and further that 23 percent of unemployed youth are not actively looking for a job, thus putting them in the at-risk category of young people who are neither in school, work, nor training.
The UNFPA’s timely survey stands as a stark reminder that escalations of political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina do not only affect day-to-day political calculations but pose a serious danger to the future of the country, especially when considering the threat of youth emigration. Political instability and the stalling of reform processes push young people to search for opportunities abroad.
Considering that the country’s youth are of the post-war generation, they have the capacity to build peace between nations in Bosnia and Herzegovina; but the cost of recurring political crises becomes higher by the day. Discussions of the recent crisis in BiH should consider the opportunities provided by youth, and the EU and US’s agendas towards peace and stability in BiH should emphasize youth programs more than ever. Young people from Bosnia and Herzegovina, like all young people, do not deserve to face the uncertainty of violence.
In order to tackle youth unemployment, international institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund should implement projects within their programs in BiH. If economic sanctions are an important tool in stopping Dodik’s secessionist agenda, economic incentives might be an important tool in tackling unemployment.
*Burak Yalım is an Istanbul-based doctoral research fellow at Kocaeli University and President of the International Relations Studies Association (TUIC). Yalım’s primary areas of interest are migration and the Balkans. He can be found on Twitter @burakyalim