• North Macedonia is blessed with beautiful Orthodox Churches and Mosques. But sometimes, religion in this secular country can become too intrusive on the public space.

    A 66-metre-high Orthodox cross overlooks the capital Skopje. Built in 2002 to mark two millennia of Christianity, this cross instils a sense of pride in some, but for others it is a prime example of megalomania, including for many Muslims who live in Skopje.

    The second largest religion, Islam, has also drawn criticism. People have complained about the noise coming from the mosques’ loudspeakers. I measured a staggering 80 decibels during the afternoon prayer in Skopje’s Cair municipality. The legal limit is only 45 decibels of noise.

    Young people are leaving. The population is ageing, and birth rates are declining. There is a chronic lack of workers, as they have been vacuumed out from the region – this is the gloomy picture of the Balkans today.

    No wonder few want to stay. With wages a fraction of the EU average, the region is still entangled in border disputes, ethnic quarrels, rampant corruption, unfinished EU and NATO accession (in some states) and the ghosts of the wars of the 1990s.

    “People see no future here, so they seek their fortunes in central and western Europe or anywhere else. It’s not only about the money, but above all about the comparatively lower quality of life [at home],” says Ilija Aceski, a professor of sociology in Skopje.

    If one believes the projections of the United Nations, the World Bank and the statistical agencies, Bulgaria will have 38% fewer people in 2050 than in 1990. In Serbia, numbers will be down 24%, and North Macedonia and Croatia will see a 22% drop.

    Unlike in Germany, France, Poland or even Romania, there is no influx of migrant workers to fill the vacancies. Despite the millions of migrants and refugees from the Middle East who have passed through the region in the last decade, almost no one wanted to stay. Just like the inhabitants of the Balkans, they dream of a life in wealthier countries.

    Both the public and private sectors are hit. Everywhere you look, there is a chronic lack of doctors and nurses. The same goes for engineers, plumbers, bricklayers and other skilled professionals.

    “It’s a vicious circle,” adds Aceski. “The more people leave, the more the overall quality of life dwindles. And that in turn causes even more people to flee.”

    In his opinion, governments have so far offered very few resources and sound plans to stop the exodus.

    “‘Don’t worry. It happens sometimes due to paperwork. Meanwhile, borrow some money if you can’ – This is what I was told when I asked the Public Health Fund why my maternity leave payments were overdue. It happened last year after I gave birth to my second child. The money started arriving after a three-month delay. As a single mother with a newborn, this delay became really stressful. I had to borrow money from my parents. I can’t understand how the state could leave me like that when I was at my most vulnerable.”

    In North Macedonia, the state fund covers 100% of a mother’s wages during maternity leave. But Lidija Stancevska, 43, from Skopje, told us that mothers are sometimes left penniless before the state’s ‘helping hand’ arrives.

    Meanwhile, the country is gearing up for a public debate on extending maternity leave from nine months up to one year. But what good is a formal extension if the cash turns up late?

    Russia’s strategic goals in the Western Balkans have long been clear. By taking advantage of corrupt local elites, the Kremlin exploits the existing ethnic divides to stoke anti-Western sentiment, further complicate the region’s already sluggish reform plans, and prevent more countries from joining the EU or NATO.

    The track record includes its refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence, a coup attempt in Montenegro and its support for separatist-minded leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The recent Bulgarian blockade of North Macedonia’s EU aspirations also provides space for malign Russian influence. The same is true in Serbia, where Moscow has capitalized on continuing Serbian resentment of the 1999 NATO campaign.

    However, it is not the Kremlin, but the EU that has been providing pretexts for this development for far too long.

    Although the peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo have played an important role in maintaining stability, European indecision has led to a rise in anti-Western sentiment and to doubts about the EU’s true intention to provide a way forward for the region.

    Over the past two decades, Brussels has lost its focus on the region and started showing ambiguity towards its EU perspective. Unsurprisingly, this has alienated many citizens, for whom EU ideals increasingly seem like a pipe dream.

    All the Kremlin had to do in the meantime was pour salt on the Balkans’ wound to make things worse.

    “Russia’s strategy has been to manipulate the rifts in the Western Balkans. We would like to counter this […] And we would like to bring them closer to the EU,” a senior German diplomat told Euractiv at a meeting of countries from the region in Berlin last week.

    It is time Brussels acted. Russia’s war is a wake-up call to revive the enlargement process and clarify the EU’s strategic vision. Otherwise, Europe risks losing the Balkan peoples’ mindshare and leaving its front yard vulnerable – which is dangerous for the EU itself.