As lawmakers in Skopje consider changing the country’s name, Flora Jusufi is one of thousands of young Macedonians considering a change of countries.
The 21-year-old student from Kumanovo says she plans to go abroad after completing her studies even though she’d rather not. The problem she faces isn’t Macedonia’s name, it’s a lack of opportunities.
For Jusufi and other younger Macedonians, the fall of communism and subsequent conflicts were supposed to give way by now to a world of opportunities.
Instead, even the best and brightest are finding it tough to be optimistic about the future when there are dim prospects for employment.
“As far as I am concerned, I don’t think there are any conditions for having a life in Macedonia,” she told RFE/RL.
“I’m studying European studies. I want to learn German as soon as possible, and after that I’ll go live somewhere abroad.”
Macedonia’s parliament opened debate on October 15 on proposed constitutional amendments to change the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia and possibly settle a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece.
The change, which stems from a deal hammered out in June between the Macedonian and Greek governments, sees Athens lifting its objections to the former Yugoslav republic joining both NATO and the EU in exchange for the name switch.
Athens and many Greeks say the name Macedonia implies territorial and cultural claims on the northern Greek region of the same name. An EU and NATO member, Greece has cited the dispute to veto Macedonia’s bids to join the two organizations.
The move may open the way to the economic benefits membership in Western structures bring, but it is unlikely to bring them quickly enough for younger Macedonians, almost half of whom are unemployed.
“The main reason for leaving the country is the battle for an existence; that is, solving the employment problem,” says Zoran Ilieski, executive director of the Coalition of Youth Organizations.
When Yugoslavia broke up in 1991, Macedonia was considered by many to be its poorest republic. Not a lot has changed over the years, with Macedonia’s economy sputtering further after a financial crisis in recent years.
The overall unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at above 20 percent, while the average monthly net salary of about 350 euros ($400) is the lowest in the region.
For 29-year-old Denis Zandevski, those figures are far better than what younger Macedonians like him face as they try to find their place in the economy.
“When you see that rent is 150 to 200 euros, and your salary is around 200 euros as well, then nothing really remains for you,” he says, adding that IT may be the only sector where there are prospects.
To counter, the government this year launched a program called “Youth Guarantee ” that increases the inclusion of young unemployed people in the labor market. The plan is part of an EU initiative launched in 2012.
Labor and Social Policy Minister Mila Carova says that high interest in the program is encouraging for a country where nearly one-quarter of 2.1 million citizens are estimated to be living abroad.
“Young people in Macedonia are a quarter of the population — and they’re one of the largest marginalized groups,” according to Dona Kosturanova of the Youth Educational Forum.
“They’re struggling with poor education, high unemployment, and few opportunities for prosperity. They’re desperate to see advancement toward a prosperous environment.”
Jana Ivanovska is one of the Macedonians to be bucking the trend.
She left the country a decade ago in search of a new life, but after almost six years decided to return.
After studying design in the Czech capital, Prague, she now lives in Skopje, where she has her own office.
Still, she sympathizes with her generation even if she found that the grass wasn’t necessarily greener on the other side.
“It was much as I imagined it would be. So, many opportunities for young people, opportunities to prove, to learn, to advance,” she says of her time abroad.
“But I decided to return from Prague because I missed the people I love and the warmth I feel here.”