Abandoned shops and mostly empty streets offer few signs of life in Valandovo, North Macedonia, where young people are fleeing in large numbers in hopes of finding a better life abroad.
Like much of this impoverished corner of southeastern Europe, this tiny Balkan nation is sitting on a demographic time bomb fueled by an aging population, falling birth rate and mass migration.
North Macedonia has lost 10% of its population over the past 20 years. About 600,000 Macedonian citizens now live abroad, according to World Bank and government data.
Abysmal economic growth and a lack of investment have dogged the country, now home to just 1.8 million people, during its 30 years of independence.
“If you have just over 2.4 million citizens and more than a quarter have left, then you have to be seriously worried about what’s going on,” says Apostol Simovski, director of the country’s statistics office.
Villages and small towns like Valandovo, 146 kilometers (90 miles) from the capital, offer few jobs, pushing the ambitious and able to look elsewhere.
“The spirit of young people has been systematically destroyed,” Pero Kostadinov, the 33-year-old newly elected mayor, told Agence France-Presse (AFP). “The enthusiasm to fight and stay home has been lost.”
In Valandovo alone, almost 90% of the inhabitants’ income is linked to agriculture, a common denominator for all of North Macedonia.
“Five of my friends from our class of 20 students have already moved abroad with their families,” said Bojan Nikolov, 24, a member of Valandovo’s city youth council.
The anecdote offers a raw image of the future of the country.
“Better to be a slave abroad”
Early results from North Macedonia’s latest census taken in September estimate that the population has fallen by more than 200,000 since 2002.
Since independence and the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, many had hoped that integration into the European Union would offer a life raft and the promise of a better future.
But North Macedonia’s path to EU membership has been repeatedly blocked, first by Greece and later by Bulgaria, raising new doubts about the country’s membership and pushing many people to leave the ship.
For those who stay, monthly salaries average 470 euros ($530).
“It is better to be a slave for 2,000 euros in a foreign country than to be a slave with 300 euros at home,” goes a popular refrain in North Macedonia.
It is an image reproduced across the Balkans.
In Albania, around 1.7 million people, or around 37% of the population, have left the country in the past three decades, according to government figures.
Hundreds of thousands of people left Serbia to resettle abroad after wars in the 1990s hit the economy, with estimates suggesting that up to 10,000 doctors left in the past 20 years.
“All Western Balkan countries are affected to varying degrees by emigration,” said Ilir Gedeshi, an economics professor based in Tirana, the Albanian capital.
“The main reasons are economic, but apart from that, social reasons are increasingly important.”
“Last Train That Leaves”
But for Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – all of whom hope EU membership will reverse their fortunes – Croatia issues a stark warning.
Since joining the bloc in 2013, its population of just over four million has shrunk nearly 10% in a decade, according to preliminary census results.
The United Nations predicts that Croatia will have only 2.5 million inhabitants by the end of the century. Demographers warn that the country’s small population may lack resilience in the face of further losses.
In December, Zagreb sought to reverse some of the brain drain by promising Croatian expatriates in the European Union up to 26,000 euros ($29,000) to return and start a business.
But for some regions, it may already be too late.
“For Sale” signs litter the eastern region of Pozega, one of the hardest hit by war in the 1990s. More than 16% of the region’s population of nearly 80,000 left for over the past decade, according to official figures.
“In my street, a third of the houses are empty,” said Igor Cancar, 39, from Brestovac.
Among them, his sister who moved to Austria with her husband and two children, as well as most of his close friends.
“If we want the young people to stay, we need a kindergarten and help them build a house,” added Cancar.
“The last train leaves, and all we do is stand on the platform and wave.”