For Bosnians, a Jobless Peace: Economy Struggles to Revive
Problem may deepen when 1 million refugees return from other nations
SARAJEVO — Edin Chulov speaks fluent English, designed a generator that brought electricity to a city, rebuilt his family home twice, and demonstrates a work ethic that would make Microsoft's Bill Gates blush. But after he graduated from the University of Sarajevo with a degree in mechanical engineering this past spring, he couldn't find a job.
"I wanted to stay in Bosnia, I had ... fought during the war," Mr. Chulov says. "If I couldn't find a job, I knew I would have to leave."
He eventually found work at a humanitarian organization and moved last month to a job as an assistant to the cantonal governor of his native city, Gorazde. But his struggle to find work symbolizes a staggering problem: After four years of war, Bosnia faces massive unemployment - officially 70 percent of the work force - even though the nation desperately needs skills and manpower to rebuild.
The war has drained Bosnian government coffers, ground state-run industry to a halt, and forced up to 600,000 workers into unemployment. The anticipated return of over a million refugees and the reintegration of 300,000 soldiers into the economy add to the strain. Meanwhile, the transition from a centralized economy to a market-oriented one has stalled, leaving whole industries at a standstill.
The result is an economy where working as a driver for the United Nations pays twice as much ($600 a month) as working as a doctor at Sarajevo's Kosovo hospital ($300 per month) - if you can get the job. "Brain drain" is rampant, as economic migration of skilled workers replaces ethnic cleansing as the impetus for Bosnians to seek better lives abroad.
"I cannot further my professional skills here," says Jasmine Alibegovic, a doctor who now works as a translator for the BBC. "I would like to go to Slovenia."
Analysts say the high unemployment threatens the peace. "There is widespread concern that the large injection of former soldiers into the economy could threaten peace and recovery unless ways are found to expedite their reintegration," the World Bank warns.
Still, like Chulov, some Bosnians are showing creativity and resilience. Throughout the war, many continued to go to work every day, even though their employers often could pay them only in goods instead of money.
Now, Bosnian professionals who lost jobs in the postwar downsizing of state-run companies are marketing basic skills - such as proficiency in English or simply a willingness to work hard - to find jobs, often with international organizations.
Jasna Bajbutovic worked as an architect designing schools before the war. After four years of unemployment, she has started working as an administrative assistant for the International Organization of Migration. "I miss working as an architect, but I love my new job," Ms. Bajbutovic says. "It's good to feel needed again. I lost my husband and my mother during the war, and my kids have left here. I need something to do."
Jump-starting the economy has become a top priority of international peacekeepers in Bosnia. The World Bank plans to disperse more than $200 million over the next two years to help reintegrate Bosnia's demobilized soldiers into the civilian economy, support privatization, provide loans to entrepreneurs, and fund public-works projects.
Other donors, such as the US Agency for International Development, have already made small loans to help clothing, furniture, and food manufacturers.
But larger industries remain stuck. A Volkswagen plant near Sarajevo is still idle after 10 months of peace. The network of raw materials alive in prewar Yugoslavia has disappeared with the breakup of the country into five republics.
Bosnia's economic future may hinge on the drive of the ambitious people who retain a vision for their country. Haris Hadzialic, one of the Bosnian techies who helped bring the Internet here this year, is now working to create a spinoff company that will teach other Bosnian entrepreneurs how to tap into the resources of the Internet and other cutting-edge technologies to become more market savvy.
"Bosnians have real strengths they can offer the world economy," Mr. Hadzialic explains. "People here tend to be well educated, especially in engineering and technology."
Like Hadzialic, many Bosnians who are able to find one good job end up with two or three. Young, educated Bosnians who know English and have strong computer skills are earning as much as $1,500 per month, supporting their entire families, and traveling abroad.
The challenge for Bosnia will be to keep these people in the country.