Young people represent the driving force in society. They are energetic, creative, possess a large amount of optimism and want to make a difference in their local communities and see a positive change in the world. The so-called “young democracies” of the Western Balkans have a large percent of people under the age of 30 which makes them countries with a relatively young population, unlike some of the countries in Western Europe which face an overall aging population and therefore various challenges which come with this phenomenon.
Although some might consider this fact a blessing, if they are not adequately and fully informed, consulted and involved in the policy-creation and decision-making processes in the country, it may lead to an overall dissatisfaction, apathy and in the end, migration to a society they deem to be better.
The youth in the Western Balkans face many difficulties and challenges, such as a high rate of unemployment, limited educational opportunities, a relatively low level of personal and professional mobility, issues connected to their personal safety, mental health and wellbeing and an unhealthy environment.
One uniting and contributing factor for the improvement of this status quo is the level and quality of youth participation and engagement in the country and in the region. To start, a solid national legal framework is an absolute precondition.
Youth participation and youth policies in North Macedonia
In the Republic of North Macedonia, on the 14th of January 2020, a new Law on youth participation and youth policies was introduced. It was supposed to serve as the foundation for the improvement of the position of the young people in the country and introduced some novelties, such as the local youth councils and youth centers in the municipalities, the local youth strategies, youth workers and a research center in the Agency for youth and sport (the country’s main government institution on youth and youth policies). A deadline of 5 years since its adoption was proposed for the fulfillment of these obligations.
However, almost 4 years later, little progress has been made. The Monitoring report on the implementation of the Law on youth participation and youth policies prepared by the National Youth Council of Macedonia (NYCM) concluded that only 12% of the municipalities in North Macedonia have formed local youth councils, only 11% of the municipalities have opened a youth office, whereas 69% of the municipalities have assigned a youth official.
There have been some attempts to amend the current Law in order to fill in some of the gaps which happened in practice over the years, however, they have not been inclusive and have not taken into account the comments, suggestions and perspectives of the young people, youth workers and youth officials.
The new National youth strategy 2023-2027 shines a new and positive light towards the youth participation in North Macedonia and tackles 8 key thematic areas: 1. Youth participation, 2. Youth informing, 3. Youth work, 4. Education, 5. Culture, 6. Health, 7. Entrepreneurship and employment support and 8. Security (violence). With strong support from the OSCE Mission to Skopje and the civil society in the country, it is envisaged to complement the Law on youth participation and youth policies and improve the current situation, with a well-prepared Action plan. Nevertheless, we should keep a close eye on its future implementation and the effects it will have.
Young people and the forthcoming Elections 2024
Given the fact that the next 2024 year will be an election year in North Macedonia (both presidential and parliamentary elections), I would like to reflect on the right to vote and the young people’s participation in the elections, as one of the crucial ways and types of youth participation in general. The youth perspective and participation in elections is vital for the democratic processes, as it ensures that various and diverse interests are represented in the political landscape and ecosystem. By engaging the young people in the electoral process, we can ensure a more representative and inclusive government and political system.
However, in a 2021 research study called “Socio-political participation of the young people in North Macedonia” supported by the Western Balkans Democracy Initiative and done by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Youth Educational Forum, some of the findings were quite shocking:
Only 8% of the interviewed young people have been included or consulted by the institutions in the decision-making processes on local and national level.
56% of the interviewed young people rarely or never follow the current political events in the country and in the region.
44% of the interviewees believe that North Macedonia would become a member state of the European Union (EU) and ⅔ of the young people are content with their position in the society.
An astonishing 77.5% of the interviewees believe that a strong leader with a “firm hand” is needed to run the country.
74% of the young people voted in the last parliamentary elections back in 2020.
Given the regional violent aftermath since the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Western Balkans region has had a history of ethnic tensions and conflicts and unfortunately, the youth may be influenced by the historical context. North Macedonia and its elections have not been an exclusion of this practice and we often witness inter-ethnic tensions and nationalistic outbursts in the time period ahead of the elections in the country, whether they are local, parliamentary or presidential. The political parties use these happenings and practices in their favor and try to attract more voters, especially young ones and first-time voters.
In the long run, this phenomenon could also lead to radicalization and extremism. Addressing economic insecurity and social exclusion, especially when it comes to young people, could also contribute towards maintaining security.
In order to achieve and maintain long-term security and stability, national and regional efforts to promote inter-ethnic understanding, tolerance and mutual cooperation are essential and highly desirable.
In that sense, the role of civil society in the Western Balkans is extremely important. The Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) has started to work towards the implementation of the United Nations Youth, Peace, and Security Agenda (YPSA). At the capacity-building training which took place in North Macedonia in December 2023, the participants pointed out the excellent work that the civil society organizations have undertaken to ensure the peace, peace-building, peace-maintaining and security in the local communities and for the young people. The whole region faces the same challenges, especially when it comes to cybersecurity concerns. Given the high level of digital technologies usage among youth, there may be potential vulnerabilities that need to be addressed to ensure the peace and security of young individuals and government institutions.
Having this in mind, regional cooperation in conflict resolution is becoming more important every day. Youth involvement and consultation in peace and reconciliation initiatives are vital not only for the young people, but for the countries and their population, as well. As the countries in the Western Balkans aspire to become part of the European Union, the whole integration process can have implications for security, as it often involves addressing challenges and issues related to good governance, rule of law, democratic and stable institutions, and regional cooperation, coordination, and communication.
In conclusion, young people from the Western Balkans need to be included in all phases and stages in the decision-making processes, especially the ones that directly affect them and could have a substantial impact on their lives. This is one of the many tasks and responsibilities of the government – to provide them with the necessary platforms and tools for their voices to be heard. Quality decision-making processes and policies are a two-way street, and they need to be clearly and publicly defined and inclusive.
However, if the government fails to do so, the civil society organizations should serve as a safety net and fill in the gaps in their work and serve as watch dogs and provide appropriate feedback towards the institutions, so that they could get back on track.
The input from the young people should be taken into serious account and it is only with a synergy of this kind that the policies and measures could be effective and change societies for better.
This publication was funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of theNGO Info-center Скопје and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.