Western Balkans’ Demographic Future: Poor, Depopulating, Aging

Western Balkans’ Demographic Future: Poor, Depopulating, Aging

The Balkans provide the best illustration within Europe of a mentality that causes larger entities to break up into a patchwork of tiny states. In the western part of the Balkan Peninsula, the territory formerly covered by the socialist states of Yugoslavia and Albania has split step by step into eight independent nation states since the early 1990s.

For many centuries, the region’s population has comprised numerous ethnic groups with different religious affiliations and languages whose coexistence has not always been conflict-free. The wars that took place as the multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia disintegrated are only the latest testimony to this reality. Albania and the Yugoslav successor states of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, FYRO Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are today home to a total of more than 18 million people.

Slovenia and Croatia, whose combined population well exceeds six million, were likewise part of the former Yugoslavia and are now members of the EU. In the other states, much of the population lives in poverty and the level of prosperity is low in comparison with the rest of Europe.

In Montenegro, the wealthiest country in the region, GDP per capita in 2015 was only 42 percent of the EU average. The global economic and financial crisis dealt a further blow to the six economies: whereas between 2000 and 2008, their annual growth rates averaged more than 5 percent, since 2008 the figure has been just some 1.5 percent.

Against this background, it seems unlikely that the Western Balkans will be able to catch up with the EU states economically in the foreseeable future. Unemployment and informal employment are widespread in the region. In Serbia and FYRO Macedonia around 20 percent and in Albania as many as 63 percent of people of working age earn their living in the informal sector and have no social security. This has led to large numbers of people seeking their fortunes far from home.

The United Nations estimates that during the period 2010–2015, net emigration from the Western Balkans amounted to 200,000 people. Many of these migrants, who are predominantly young and well qualified, went to the EU. Emigration is not a new phenomenon in the Western Balkans: back in the 1960s, many young workers left their home countries under recruitment agreements with Western European countries; they were followed in the 1990s by hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and violence. Although many returned after the war, some stayed in the countries where they had found temporary refuge.

The share of citizens of the Balkan states living abroad is therefore large: the six states of the Western Balkans have a diaspora of 4.5 million people, which is the equivalent of a quarter of the region’s current total population. Since 1990, the six countries – among which only Kosovo is not an EU accession candidate – have lost around a tenth of their populations. They could lose another 14 percent of their current populations by 2050, not least because of emigration, especially of young people.

The low fertility rates of around 1.3 children per woman are another contributor to the rapid shrinkage of the populations of the West Balkan states. At the same time, those populations are aging rapidly: while today around 15 percent of inhabitants are at least 65, this figure will probably rise to 26 percent by mid-century. In future, providing adequately for the growing number of old people is likely to pose a major challenge for the comparatively poor countries of the Western Balkans./IBNA

Source: Berlin Institute for Population and Development