Opinion: The failure of the political elite in the Balkans | Opinion | DW | 15.08.2015

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Opinion: The failure of the political elite in the Balkans

Almost half of Germany's asylum applicants come from the Balkans. Why are they coming, and what are they fleeing from? DW's Verica Spasovska writes that the region's political elites are to blame for the exodus.

War, hunger and torture are no longer commonplace in Kosovo, Albania, Serbia and Macedonia. For a decade and a half now, the states of the former Yugoslavia and their neighbors have been living in peace. Croatia and Slovenia have joined the European Union. The other Balkan countries have been working toward membership for years.

There is no basis for comparison with Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, where people are dying every day because of war and terrorism. And yet, people are leaving the Balkans to seek asylum in Germany. They're fleeing from poverty and a lack of opportunity, disappointed and frustrated by the political and economic stagnation in their countries. And it's mainly the political elite who are responsible for this lack of growth.

Verica Spasovska

DW's Verica Spasovska

The billions of euros in reconstruction aid from the EU haven't really brought about economic development or greater democracy. And even the promise of EU membership doesn't seem to be spurring politicians on to implement reforms. As long as they're not in the European Union but continue to receive money from it, the countries don't owe Brussels anything and can continue to benefit from the advantages of this association.

Out of work

In the western Balkans, unemployment has been between 20 and 50 percent for two decades now. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, more than 60 percent of young men are out of work. Even well-educated young academics can barely find suitable jobs. Sleaze, corruption and patronage obscure any chance of fairness in the job market. The political parties have extended their influence over whole swaths of society. Indirectly, they are among the biggest employers. The relevant governing party decides who becomes a manager or a doorman, no matter what skills the candidate has.

Given such circumstances, many people increasingly feel helpless. Many become official party members only because they hope that will give them better career chances, not because they're interested in actively shaping politics. More than half of young, qualified people want to emigrate from Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia.

After the old system collapsed, people in positions of responsibility often failed to invest in social infrastructure, such as functioning health systems. Roma, relegated in many countries to the lowest step on the social ladder, are most affected by this. In addition to being discriminated against because of their ethnicity, they also suffer acutely under the lack of a social welfare net. Often, they simply can't afford to see a doctor. They come to Germany for the "pocket money" that they receive while their asylum applications are being processed and because here they have access to free health care.

Corrupt and stagnant

Autocratic structures have become entrenched in many countries. Montenegro, for example, has been firmly in the hands of the clan surrounding government leader Milo Djukanovic. In Macedonia, the right-wing government stands accused of spying on its citizens and using death threats to intimidate independent journalists.

Kosovo, which has been a de facto EU protectorate since its independence from Serbia in 2008, has similar authoritarian structures. But, despite the presence of the European Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, corruption and a tight network involving the political elite and organized criminals blight the political landscape. Many members of parliament and functionaries of the governing party have ties to the Kosovo Liberation Army, the former underground militia. According to research carried out by Dick Marty, a special envoy from the European Council, the army is linked to numerous war crimes, shootings and kidnappings.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, politicians continue to harp on about national resentments 20 years after the war instead of helping to implement reforms. Half of all young Bosnians want to leave the country. Fewer people are opting to start families, which presents a serious threat to a country that has already seen so many leave.

The slow pace of change in the former Yugoslavia has led to an understandably high level of frustration in the European Union, which has turned its attention to places such as Greece and Ukraine. However, the mass exodus of people from the Balkans could put the region back on the radar. It would be good if Brussels were to more intensively address the lack of reform in Europe's backyard, even stopping the flow of aid should reforms not be implemented.

Balkan elites are wasting their most important social capital. The longer skilled young people continue to leave, the less dedicated they will be to the process of social transformation in their countries. It's a comfortable situation for the region's political establishment. But it's a disaster for the people. Even though the Balkans are not plagued by war, hunger or torture, it seems that hopelessness can also create a dictatorship from which people want to flee.

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