Diogenes the Cynic once remarked that the “foundation of every state is the education of its youth.” More than 2,300 years later, cynical was an accurate description of the 27 teenagers who were rolling their eyes at me in an overheated classroom. My lesson that day was on the importance of civic engagement, but these young people had been taught their entire lives that young voices do not matter in politics.
I was month two into my Fulbright year in Macedonia, several months before the historic Prespa Agreement would add the “North” prefix to the country’s name. I was serving as a lecturer in a small university town deep in the county’s eastern region, where the semi-tamed landscape undulates with gently rolling hills and the village vineyards outnumber the Yugoslav-era factories. I was teaching first-year university students that day, all of them bright, armed with irreverent wit and eager to discuss everything from pop culture to immigration. Despite their fascination with learning how ordinary Americans – even young Americans – can lead and enact major political reform, I was shocked to hear how resolutely my students denied that such change-making ability would ever be possible for young people in Macedonia.
This attitude is pervasive among youth in the country, who often feel forgotten by the world and ignored by their country’s leaders. The disenfranchisement of young people is tied to the country’s struggle to realize transparent governance and cooperative diplomatic relations with its neighbors – obstacles grappled with since achieving independence in 1991. These problems continued throughout the early 2000s, during which the government was rocked by a series of corruption allegations and illegal monitoring scandals.
All of these issues have had a disproportionately negative impact on young people. My students told me that several of their friends and family members had already moved to Western Europe, where menial labor often pays higher than professional occupations at home, and most of my students were determined to leave as well. Those who remain face one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Europe – an astonishing 47 percent as of 2018. As their economic prospects flounder, the country’s youngest citizens see their political autonomy fade or cease to be a priority altogether.
As a project assistant on the Central and Eastern Europe team at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), I help support programs in Macedonia as well as programs designed enhance youth engagement in democratic processes. I was interested in following up with my students to see what, if anything, has changed for young people in the country.
One of my former students, Nikola, hails from the city of Veles in the central part of the country. He was the first in class that day to remark on the widespread belief among his peers that democracy can be ineffective and tone deaf to the voices of young people in the country. To learn more about this situation, I reached out to Nikola to ask him a few questions.
Kevin: What is the experience of young people regarding civic engagement? Do young people have an influential voice in the democratic process?
Nikola: Our experience as the youth is in a dystopian manner, provided that [young people] have to fight and always raise our voices for the authorities to see us. And this is mainly how we're crafted from a very young age. The main issues here for youth are that we are being taught at school to settle for what little we have, and that if we try to prosper that we'll probably fail. In my own experience [...] young people are taught that if you don't join the "either or" of the political parties, you'll probably be jobless, and your degree will be for nothing.
K: The country has had a new government for almost two years and, as of this year, two official languages in Macedonian and Albanian. Perhaps most notably, the country has a new constitutional name – the Republic of North Macedonia – in connection with the resolution of a decades-old diplomatic dispute with your southern neighbor, Greece. Have all of these changes impacted young people?
N: It still doesn't impact young people that much, except they are still losing trust and confidence in this country and leaving it to have a better life. About the name, it's more of a nationalistic thing, it's a common thing in the Balkans to fight, and to hate. It seems like in Southeastern Europe, we've forgotten how to respect one another, and I feel sad about this [...] They don't realize that fighting about the past … defocuses from the important things like, I don't know, the future perhaps?
K: You will likely join NATO in the near future and advance toward membership in the European Union. Do you think that opportunities for young people to participate in politics will increase or improve as a result of these changes?
N: Perhaps the youth will have more of a voice about what they want to change, and what that change needs to be [...] I hope that after 29 years of independence we will finally prosper as a nation.