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article imageIn Macedonia, emigration leaves empty villages in its wake

By Sally MAIRS and Saska CVETKOVSKA (AFP)     Sep 26, 2018 in World

Only one man knows how the Macedonian village of Gradovci will vote in Sunday's referendum: Dushan Nikolovski, the sole year-round resident of the near-deserted community, now a collection of crumbling stone homes.

Like scores of other abandoned towns dotting Macedonia's countryside, the empty village, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the capital Skopje, is a monument to the waves of emigration that have gutted the Balkan country's economy.

"There used to be around a hundred houses and families," the 66-year-old told AFP from his peaceful patio, which looks over rolling hills speckled with the ruins of former homes, stores and schoolhouses.

"Slowly everything fell apart, and the people left."

Like elsewhere in the Balkans, emigration has become a vicious cycle in Macedonia, draining the economy of a workforce and perpetuating the malaise that spurs more young people to leave the country, which has a 22 percent unemployment rate.

Jobs -- or lack thereof -- are at the heart of Macedonia's referendum on Sunday.

Officially, it is a vote on whether the country should change its name to "North Macedonia" to end a long-running row with neighbouring Greece, which has promised to lift its blockade to NATO and the EU if the deal is finalised.

The name-change is seen by many as the only ticket to a future inside the European Union, with the economic revival and reforms they hope that will bring.

"Young people want to live in a democratic country where their human rights are respected and where they can be promoted because of their knowledge," Justice Minister Renata Deskoska told AFP.

The government does not have any up-to-date figures on how many Macedonians have gone overseas for work.

Nikolovski spends his days tending to a garden of tomatoes  peppers and grapes  fishing  and making ...
Nikolovski spends his days tending to a garden of tomatoes, peppers and grapes, fishing, and making his own wine and rakija, a local brandy. 
Robert ATANASOVSKI, AFP

But a 2012 EU study estimated that more than 500,000 citizens -- some 26 percent of its 2.1 million population -- live abroad.

It seems unlikely that these overseas Macedonians will sway the referendum.

Less than 3,000 of them have registered to vote, a tiny fraction of the more than 900,000 ballots needed to pass the 50 percent mark of total registered voters.

The vote is more likely to be fuelled by those who have stayed behind.

"I want Macedonia to be like Switzerland," said Ismi Aziz, who retired to his home in the southern city of Kicevo after 33 years of working abroad in Switzerland.

When asked what young Macedonians think about the vote, he laughed.

"There are no young people here, they all left."

- 'Young Doctors Club' -

The brain drain crisis is not just about the moribund economy of Macedonia, whose GDP growth hit nearly zero in 2017.

It is a political problem too, says a group of young doctors who are fed up with a system where promotions are all about who -- not what -- you know.

"Everyone is getting their jobs, their residencies, based on their political status," explained Sonja Grazhdani, a 21-year-old medical student who joined the "Young Doctors Club" lobbying the government for better healthcare policies.

With this kind of patronage system, "you get bad doctors, unhealthy patients," she added, saying she felt she had no choice but to go abroad after her schooling to get proper training.

Nikola Brzanov, a surgeon who founded the club this year and is campaigning for a "yes" vote in the referendum, said around 1,200 young doctors have left the country over the past eight years.

That leaves behind a patchy healthcare system, with a lack of pediatricians, gynaecologists and emergency care doctors in particular, especially in rural areas, he said.

Justice Minister Deskoska says the problem spans professions.

- Quiet countryside -

An anomaly in Macedonia's emigration story, Nikolovski returned to his rural hometown a decade ago after spending most of his life in Skopje working construction jobs.

For villages like Gradovci the exodus began under communist rule in the former Yugoslavia when rural families were funnelled to cities to power industrialisation.

Soaring emigration rates in the 1990s and 2000s after Yugoslavia's collapse have only exacerbated the problem.

Gradovci is now a collection of crumbling stone homes.
Gradovci is now a collection of crumbling stone homes.
Robert ATANASOVSKI, AFP

Alone in Gradovci, Nikolovski spends his days tending to a garden of tomatoes, peppers and grapes, fishing, and making his own wine and rakija, a local brandy.

Now he is trying to convince other childhood friends to return and sees potential for rural tourism in the bucolic area.

The only thing missing is a lack of investment.

"People who are working would need bigger salaries," he said, when asked how to bring young people back.

For now, he can't convince the government to pave the roads or install running water and electricity.

"Our country does not care about villages," he said.

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