• Although the Balkan route for migrants has seen a decline of 29 per cent in the first half of this year, this remains the second most active pathway into the EU, according to Frontex, after the Mediterranean.

    The numbers sometimes can deceive: this drop hides the individual stories of human suffering. North Macedonia’s Red Cross says thousands are in need of their help while traversing the Balkan route.

    Migrants are often beaten or robbed by traffickers. Some looking to hitch a ride on top of or below a train suffer electrification and severe burns.

    It was in 2015 when I realised that the days of the authoritarian regime of North Macedonia, nicknamed “the family”, led by former PM Nikola Gruevski, were numbered.

    Their wrongdoings were ironically uncovered by leaked wiretaps recorded illegally by the secret police.

    It was strange to hear top officials rigging elections, controlling the media and judiciary, discussing bribes and rejoicing in taking revenge against a former political ally after demolishing his building.

    Massive protests followed under the slogan “No Justice – No Peace”, and by mid-2017 Gruevski’s family crumbled.

    Could this be it? I wondered. Could this be the turning point for my country?

    But soon, sweet justice turned sour when the new Social Democratic government first broke its promise to root out corrupt judges, insisting it would do more harm than good. In 2018, they endorsed an amnesty law for Gruevski’s supporters who stormed the parliament the previous year, saying it was for the sake of reconciliation.

    In 2021, Saso Mijalkov, the former head of the secret police, was jailed for 12 years for masterminding the illegal wiretapping. A little glimmer of hope, one would say. But a higher court scrapped this verdict and ordered a retrial, which now has an unrealistic deadline of next year.

    As I write these lines, Law students from Skopje are again protesting in front of the government. The slogan “No Justice – No Peace” is the same.

    The reason? A recent government decision made a change in the criminal law that reduces sentences for misuse in office and criminal enterprise. This would also make many of the ongoing cases expire.

    Is the current “family” making a deal with the old “family” for when it loses power by offering a quiet amnesty for wrongdoers? Quite possible, but this is irrelevant.

    Our fight against the real “family”, deeply embedded in institutions that have no political color and are driven exclusively by self-interest, has failed miserably.

    That’s how many times Macedonian schools were evacuated during the last year. Why? The police had to intervene following almost a thousand fake bomb threats.

    The frightening phenomenon began last autumn, when the country, like several others in the Balkans, started receiving dozens of bomb threats daily.

    This mostly affected countries who are helping Ukraine’s defence against Russia. Experts have pointed the finger at a possible Russian hybrid attack designed to stretch security resources and cause disturbance for a country of only two million people.

    As the children go back to school, the fear returns that the threats may resume.

    “We are experiencing one of the strongest tourist seasons of all time.”

    – Kiril Pecakov, mayor of the lake town of Ohrid.

    Failing to be by the sea is the biggest weakness of North Macedonia’s landmark Lake Ohrid, compared to other Balkan hotspots. But this season, scared off by the astronomical price hikes in coastal resorts, many have given Ohrid a try.

    According to local mayor Kiril Pecakov most of the guests have come from the Netherlands, UK, Poland, Turkey and Serbia.

    An ancient town, breathtaking scenery and one of the oldest and clearest lakes in the world, known as ‘The Macedonian Sea’, does not sound so bad after all.

    Three decades after the Bosnian war in the 1990s, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains sharply divided along ethnic lines, with much of its population still suffering from war trauma.

    Before ending in December 1995 with the Dayton Peace Accord, the war between Bosnia’s Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats claimed over 101,000 lives.

    Some scars are obvious, such as the dilapidated, bullet hole-ridden buildings, while others, like the trauma suffered by the people, are hard to spot at first sight.

    Bosnia has yet to make a centralised database of all the victims of war or those suffering from PTSD. According to a 2020 study by the country’s Health Ministry, more than 60 percent of the population in the capital of Sarajevo alone ― a city that spent much of the war under siege, grenades and sniper fire ― suffer from symptoms of PTSD.

    According to the authorities, the country still has about 8,000 people living in collective houses as well.

    The Peace Accord ended the war, but society remains sharply divided along ethnic lines.

    The country is organised into a multiethnic national government, with many powers devolved to a majority Bosniak and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina that’s further divided into ten cantons, a Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, and a tiny self-governed district called Brcko.

    Efforts to introduce alternatives to the Dayton Agreement have never taken hold. Thus, Bosnia’s government on all levels has been rendered largely ineffective, as each of the three ethnicities have resumed their gripes and blocked each other from realising their aims to help the country progress.

    Meanwhile, Bosnian Serbs have pressed on with their secessionist efforts for Republika Srpska.

    The frustration has fueled an exodus of youth and estimates are that tens of thousands leave the country each year. And for the young people who remain, the OSCE reported that segregated schools, where pupils learn to vilify those of another ethnicity, is still a pressing issue.

    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.