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The end of the myth about the Serbian diaspora

Reporting on the crowds at the border crossings, an experienced RTS reporter said recently that in the convoys of cars there were a lot of “our citizens who are temporarily working abroad”. For slightly older ears, nothing unusual, although everyone younger than forty could rightly ask – who are those citizens of ours, what is temporary work abroad, how do we even know if they are temporarily or permanently “abroad”?


One of the “Kardelj terminologies” from the ancient self-governing socialism outlived not only its creators, but also the state in which it was created, its disintegration, and a few more decades. The unbreakable construction – “temporary work abroad”, was conceived as an ideological euphemism, which would mark the seasonal employment, economic emigration, brain drain, as “temporary”, because in the Yugoslav model of socialism it was never allowed to admit that migrant workers would never to return to their homeland, which they love immensely.


The treatment of Serbian emigrants by the home country has remained unchanged for almost as long as the phrase “temporary work abroad” lives on. And when it exists at all, it is one-dimensional, heavily burdened with stereotypes, outdated and even completely displaced from the real world and time. It traditionally does not bring any benefit to the state of Serbia, much less to those of its citizens and their descendants, who may still be interested in the state from which they came.


The story of the so-called Serbian diaspora is constantly mythologized, first of all through unsubstantiated figures about its size, and immediately afterwards through even more inflated assessments of its wealth, which is kept somewhere and can hardly wait to be placed in the Serbian economy. It is extremely risky to believe in any domestic assessment of the Serbian diaspora size. For example, in America.


Mythomaniacs make estimates of about half a million, and even a million Serbs (by birth, origin) in the United States and base those estimates only on subjective and supposedly patriotic feelings. Since there is no serious estimate in Serbia, let alone research and statistics on that number, we can only rely on the data of the US Census Bureau from 2017, that there are slightly more than 188 thousand people of Serbian origin in the United States. Even if, for some (perhaps “patriotic”) reason, we do not trust the American government agency and its professionalism, why should we not trust all those people who voluntarily said that they were of Serbian origin. And there are about 188 thousand of them, not half a million, let alone a million. Almost all of them (98.9%) have lived in the United States for more than a year, and as many as three-quarters were born in the United States, showing that they are permanently attached to America and there is no talk of “temporary work abroad” and their return to the homeland.


If we are not even close to the elementary data on the number of Serbian emigrants, nor has anyone tried to determine it reliably for decades, on the basis of which can we talk about other attributes of the diaspora, primarily about its economic and financial strength. In that field, and it is usually the only one that is considered when it comes to the diaspora, only megalomania and mythical fog reign. There is talk of a “savings” of several hundred billion dollars, which lie unused in the hands of Serbian emigrants. Even one current opposition leader spoke of the huge potential of about $ 300 billion, which will become the foundation of Serbia’s development, instead of the current subsidies given to foreign investors. Of course, when his option comes to power and, as he says, he sets up a system, led by a solid team of quality people, who will not deceive the diaspora!?


Aside from the fact that there is no relevant estimate for those 300 billion, nor is it possible, it is interesting that the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was in his five-year term in charge of Serbia’s relationship with the diaspora, speaks about it and the team of solid and quality people who will attract it. He obviously did not have a “solid team of quality people” by his side.


When it comes to diaspora money, the only solid ground we can stick to is the data of the National Bank of Serbia on so-called “payments from abroad”, which is another self-governing euphemism for money that emigrants send to their families, or spend in Serbia during the vacation, Christmas and Easter holidays. The annual amount of these “payments” has been between 2.5 and three billion euros for years, which is not a small amount, but it very convincingly dispels the fog about the unimagined wealth of our emigrants. In general, there is a downward trend in annual payments from abroad in all Balkan countries, especially after the 2008 global financial crisis. The main reason is that since then, the cake that is shared with relatives at home has decreased, but also the attitude of modern emigrants towards the house from which they left has changed. Today, they invest much more in their life in a “foreign country”, invest, raise loans, educate children than they help their own in the country. And that is a parameter that says that “temporary work abroad” is becoming more and more permanent.


And every story about the unused huge financial potential of the diaspora had to stop back in 1990, when Milošević’s fraud called “Loan for the economic revival of Serbia” collected only 8.6% of the foreign currency from the projected billion dollars. Unfortunately, it has not stopped, but it still lives in various forms today, equally without a point of contact with reality.


The Serbian diaspora has always been heterogeneous by all criteria, professional and social, above all, and today it is more than ever. To the extent that it is reasonable to ask the question – is there an entity at all that could be called the Serbian diaspora, or is it just hundreds of thousands of unconnected individuals and their families who are temporarily or permanently looking for a better life outside their country. Their interest in Serbia and its future is low, you only need to look at the data on voting in Serbian parliamentary or presidential elections abroad, where no more than a few dozen emigrants have voted for years. Not to mention the higher level of interest in Serbia, which would be shown by their political activism in the countries where they live. No emigrant from Serbia is a member of the parliament of any influential western country, where the diaspora is most numerous. They are not in the Bundestag, where, for example, MP of Croatian origin is very active, or at the top of British institutions where there are Bosniaks in influential positions, not to mention the political activism of Kosovo Albanians where their emigrant communities are numerous, in America or Switzerland, for example.


The political activism of Serbian emigrants usually goes only to the Serbian embassy, and their ambition to the point of receiving an invitation for a reception on the occasion of Statehood Day and possibly to the privilege of hosting the ambassador and his guests from Serbia in a restaurant run by a Serb.


This ossified image is not and should not be a modern reflection of the relationship between the state of Serbia and its emigrants. It is only one part of the mythical mosaic, which also contains hundreds of billions of unused dollars, a strong Serbian political lobby in world decision-making centres, hundreds of thousands of unregistered and unrelated emigrants, and especially their desire to one day help Serbia. The homeland will have the right to expect something from its diaspora only when it invests something in it, and that investment should not go outside of Serbia, its place is in Serbia itself. It will do the best service to itself and the emigrants when it becomes a place that will not have emigration.


Until then, the homeland has the right only to feel proud of some of its people, who have done great things in the big world. Just as Turkey can be proud of the Sahin-Türeci couple, who found the vaccine for COVID-19, but nothing more than that, because the vaccine was developed and produced by their German company BioNTech. Just as, in the end, Serbs and Serbia can only be proud of Tesla and Pupin, as their compatriots, and nothing more, because all their ingenious work has to do only with America. It is the only fair relationship between the diaspora and the homeland. That is where we should start from, and everything else remains futile self-deception.

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