InterBalkan issues: The case of North Macedonia – Interview with prof. Zoran Ilievski

As part of his presence at the 2nd Youth Dialogue in the Balkans titled “Greece, North Macedonia, and the way forward”, Professor Zoran Ilievski, of the Cyril and Methodius University, offered an exclusive interview to Balkans in-site. In the context of the discussion, he analyzed important current issues concerning the economy, society, and international relations, specifically for North Macedonia as well as the country’s relations with its neighbors. Among others, topics such as unemployment, brain drain, and migration, as well as possible solutions for these problems have been suggested and addressed throughout the interview.  

Question: The most important common problems we find in in Balkans and in both Greece and Northern Macedonia are unemployment, brain drain, and the demographic problem. How is the situation in North Macedonia?

Answer: From the problems that you mention, historically the number one problem was unemployment in all the public opinion polls. Number two was the economy. Number three was rule of law. In various periods, especially in 2001, ethnic conflicts went high and then went down. So, these issues are important. 

The demographic issue is a combination of two other problems related to all other issues. The first one is that the natality rate is decreasing and the second one is that they are moving abroad. For example, I’m a University Professor; I’m on the first lines to see how the trends will be going. The generation which was born in the ‘80s and studied in University from the whole country was around 36.000. Now, they are a bit more than 18.000. So, 50% of the people who were supposed to have academic education within North Macedonia were never born or left the country. 

As you understand brain drain is also a huge topic. This is not only strictly speaking brain drain of the highest level of educated people who go away, but it also concerns skilled workers. So, when you visit our country, you will see that many of the shops, restaurants, and hotels identified a lack of workers. We can find this issue existing in other cases like the case of Bulgaria, Romania, and even Croatia.

Question: What do you think is beginning to solve the problem?

Answer: So, what could be done is the combination of improving the rule of law-because rule of law. It is the essence of everything-business, opportunities, and fair chances. People don’t decide to stay and support their country, because in their minds they have two things. The first is the high salaries provided by Western European countries. The other one is the way they earn their money -not to be insulted by political patronizing or corruption camps- and if this way responds to their education and skills. This is an explanation of why the young people are leaving.


Question: Do you think that based on what has been said above, the issue of Brain drain is a temporary phenomenon? Will the citizens who left the country return at an older age or when the situation in the country improves? 

Answer: Traditional immigration follows the example that the father of the family leaves, the other members stay in the country and he is sending money back to them. But that was the previous example. Now, the whole family decided to leave the country, parents and children. I addressed that, without having historical proof, but observing the certain situation. For sure is a phenomenon that the type of immigration has changed. Maybe there are some examples that they decided to return to their countries, but not many. For sure we have in our hands the example of a school in North Italy where the entire classroom is filled just by people from North Macedonia. So, they come from the same region!

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Question: There is also another issue considering with demographic problem. The pattern ‘village to town’. People (especially young people) move from their villages to towns. Is the situation in North Macedonia following this pattern? 

Answer: This is right. This is the first step and a global phenomenon, the pattern of ‘village to the city’. Cities are getting larger. The second step is to move abroad. They would have programs to support young people to stay at their homes and to work in agriculture, but the economy can’t stand that much. These programs have an effect. But, as we see, this is a general trend for the whole region and even Greece, which is the average GDP in Europe, has the same issue. 


Question : Regarding the agricultural area, in Greece, most of the workers in this area are from neighboring Balkan countries. Last year affected by COVID-19, we have seen many people working in that sector for livelihood reasons. What about North Macedonia?

Answer: Yes, of course. There are people who work occasionally in this field but they decreasing more and more. The way to attract clever and creative young people to this is through organic production through green energy and green ideas in general. In this way we going to give them a big purpose for their work, protecting the environment, and at the same time a creative way to earn money. So, they feel that they are working on a healthy planet and they are producing healthy food, etc. The best thought is motivating them to promote their ‘green work’ on tourism, which is a developing sector in the country. Throughout this process, young people can be assisted by know-how to which they now have easy access and the new technologies which have now become part of our lives. I’m sure that thousands of people from Western European countries would like to come, visit and stay on an eco farm and live an organic food experience. So, that is the way!

Question: Meanwhile, in many Balkan countries we have the problem of pollution. What is the situation about that in North Macedonia? What do you think is the most beneficial solution?

Answer: It comes from the way we are living, but this is not the biggest part of the problem. The biggest one is the production of electrical energy in my town. As part of the solution, we should commend that there are many more ecological ways of production and we could support this type of production.

Question: We have to add that pollution is a European problem and we have to solve it. Do you believe that there is a European way to solve this?

It is a fact that pollution has no borders. The city of Bitola is close to the Greek border.  The world is changing every day. I think that changes can be approached by changing the way we are living. Young people nowadays can work on this issue not only for the EU but in general for European citizens for having clean and healthy cities where they going to live. We have seen that with the permission of the EU for the country of Albania and North Macedonia we pretend to do all of these issues the EU addressed regarding pollution but we didn’t. We should change everything to be a member of the EU but mainly we have to do things for ourselves and for our countries. People decide for themselves and for their better future!

The above action, project, or interview took place in the context of the Balkans in-site informal youth group of which Theodora Vounidi and Annia Korneeva were co-founders. This has been granted with common consent to the Balkan Youth Cooperation since it has been carried out by its founders and volunteers.

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