Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Shrinking Serbia

by Edward Hugh

Associated press had a timely article earlier this week about the severe plight in which Serbia currently finds itself. The article in fact focuses on the geopolitics of the problem, but the underlying demographic situation makes the position even more perilous. First the politics:

Outbursts of nationalism are nothing new in Serbia, but the blustering graffiti in a Belgrade park belongs to a bygone era.

"On your knees before Serbs!" it demands.In June, Serbia lost access to the sparkling Adriatic coastline when its sister republic, Montenegro, gained statehood. This winter, it could lose the southern province of Kosovo if U.N.-brokered talks lead to independence as expected. As their nation relentlessly shrinks, Serbs — a fiercely proud people accustomed to ruling the roost in the Balkans — are slipping into despair."How do you like our cemetery?" businessman Zoran Djuric asks cynically, standing on a hill and sweeping his hand over the twinkling lights of the capital below.

A string of staggering setbacks began last spring, when the
European Union suspended pre-membership talks with the former Yugoslav republic for failing to arrest Gen. Ratko Mladic, the world's No. 1 war crimes fugitive long believed to be hiding here.

Geographic isolation came within weeks. Serbia-Montenegro dissolved when Montenegrins voted to break away from the union forged in 2002, leaving Serbia landlocked and alone.

Now, if independence comes to Kosovo and the ethnic Albanians former strongman
Slobodan Milosevic tried to crush, Serbia soon could suffer its greatest humiliation: losing a province many consider the heart of their ancient homeland.

"Psychologically, it's very difficult to face up to the fact that your country is shrinking," said Braca Grubacic, a Belgrade political analyst.

"Half the population knows that Kosovo is a lost cause," he added. "But what's worse is that we have a serious crisis of leadership. We don't know who we are or where we're going. There are no signs of hope or a future."

Well, OK, losing a large chunk of your country is a problem, but you can get over it can't you? Well not if your fertility is in the 1.5/1.6 Tfr region you can't, you are actually shrinking in every direction, both geographically and internally. The big problem is that having got left out of the European Union for political problems Serbia will now find it difficult to attract the kind of foreign investment it needs to develop economically, and get involved in all those highly productive activities which many assume will be the saving grace of ageing societies.

So shrinking, and bereft of high value generating economic activities the most likely outcome is that many young Serbians will find themselves compelled to migrate to within the frontiers of the European Union in search of more lucrative work. If this happens it will only give yet one more twist to the force of demographic implosion. I have already noted this phenomenon in the context of Belorus, but the issue is much more general, and likely to affect all those societies in the East which are currently outside the EU borders: Croatia, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Macedonia, Ukraine etc. The so-called Lynx societies (Europe's almost tigers, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, the Czech Republic)) have a sizeable problem with low fertility and rapid ageing even with the benefit of investment, access to the EU market and in-migration from points further east, but the problems of the rest could become almost insurmountable, and we may become witness to disintegrating and disappearing countries, and this impression is only further re-inforced by the disappearance of the correlation between low-income and high fertility which we seem to be witnessing in the eastern European context. These societies have all seen fertility drop and stay down as economic conditions have steadily worsened.

The lowest-low fertility to be found in these societies also gives the lie to the idea that low fertility is somehow a product of affluent welfare societies, since almost all of these countries only plummeted down into below reproduction fertility *after* the welfare state collapsed. In fact the history of Sebian fertility is rather interesting in this regard, as Katarina Sedlecki and Mirjana Rasevic explain, in the paper I linked to yesterday:

Transition in fertility in Serbia (excluding Kosovo and Metohija) began during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Total fertility rate of about 2,1 was measured as early as in the mid-1950s. As soon as in 1971 the rate was about 20% lower than the population replacement level. The rate was more or less stabilized over the next two decades. There is an obvious decline in the number of births across low fertility regions of Serbia in the 1990s. Between 1991 and 1999, total fertility rate in Serbia declined from 1,73 to 1,41. In 2000 and 2001 total fertility rate slightly increased, and in the period 2001-2004 remained stable at the level of about 1.50.


alexei said...

The big problem is that having got left out of the European Union for political problems Serbia will now find it difficult to attract the kind of foreign investment it needs to develop economically.

We have currently no problems to attract foreign investors. European Union perspective is not a "big problem" for us. To the contrary, being outside the EU is and will ever be an advantage.

Edward said...

"We have currently no problems to attract foreign investors."

Well this is not what the IMF is saying. Given the importance of the issues you raise I have just put a second additional post up, offering some more of the economic perspective.

We obviously don't agree, but I would simply ask you to bear in mind that none of this is being said in any way to attack Serbia. What I am trying to do is draw attention to a tragedy, a tragedy which is being enacted before our eyes.

You seen to want to deny that any such tragedy is taking place. This is your right, but I would simply say I hope you know what you are doing. And remember, I am not personally responsible for the demographic transition which underpins all this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this informative post. Here in the USA Balkan issues have basically disappeared from the mainstream media due mainly of course to the Iraq situation.