15. Overview: Identifying strategic opportunities for Serbia

Serbia’s development has accelerated notably since the significant political and economic changes that have taken place since 2000. Real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita more than doubled between 2000 and 2019. Poverty fell rapidly, especially during the first decade of the 2000s. Serbia also achieved progress in institutional development and global integration, including through a number of reforms to align Serbian institutions with a view to accession to the European Union (EU). The EU accession negotiations, which started in 2014 after the entry into force of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and the receipt of candidate status in March 2012, and the broader EU integration process have contributed to the reform momentum in the country.

In the past ten years, Serbia has established itself as a competitive, export-led market economy, despite successive crises. Economic growth averaged 6.5% per year between 2001 and 2008, and trade grew from 57% to 79% of GDP. However, growth in this period was unbalanced; the employment rate fell during the decade as external imbalances mounted. Serbia was highly exposed to the 2008-09 global financial crisis and suffered recessions not only in 2009, but also in 2012 – due to severe weather conditions and contagion from the 2011 Eurozone crisis – and in 2014 due to particularly severe floods. Following fiscal consolidation since 2014 and a steady recovery of foreign direct investment (FDI) flows, the economy was on track to recover economic dynamism by 2019, with growth reaching 4.2%. Despite the turmoil, trade grew from 77% to 113% of GDP between 2010 and 2019. By the end of 2019, unemployment had fallen below 10% for the first time since the 1990s.

The COVID-19 crisis hit Serbia as the economy was gathering momentum, but it also finds the country better prepared than for some past crises. Annual economic growth has been modest since 2014, averaging 3%, but it exceeded 4% in real terms in 2018 and 2019, with four quarters exceeding 5% growth (year on year) for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis (National Bank of Serbia, 2020[1]). Fiscal consolidation between 2014 and 2017 drove public debt down to about 52% of GDP, leaving room for manoeuver in fiscal policy. Low and stable inflation also means that there is scope for monetary policy to be effective in stimulating the economy. Notwithstanding the human cost of the COVID-19 crisis, the implementation of a sizeable fiscal stimulus package is an opportunity to steer the economy towards more productive, higher value added and knowledge-intensive activities.

Progress in development dimensions beyond the economy has been more mixed and will require a holistic development strategy. While the pattern of growth since 2014 has created good-quality jobs in numbers, women, the young, some ethnic minorities and those living in lagging regions face significant, often overlapping, deprivations. Moving towards a more inclusive development pattern will require taking well-being considerations into account in setting the direction of economic policy. A holistic development strategy should also consider the toll the current economic development model is taking on the environment, largely through the heavy reliance on coal-fired electricity generation, which also has deleterious effects on health outcomes (Health and Environment Alliance/Climate Action Network, 2017[2]). Achieving this will require accelerating reforms to address a number of governance challenges.

The Multi-dimensional Review (MDR) of the Western Balkans supports Serbia and the region with a strategic perspective and ideas for action on shared challenges. This assessment of Serbia is intended to support the new strategy. It provides inputs for a possible vision for Serbia’s development and identifies the key constraints that must be tackled in order to achieve sustainable and equitable improvements in well-being and economic growth. The next phase of the project will focus on peer learning to find solutions to the challenges that emerge from the initial assessments as shared across the region.

This overview chapter presents the main results of the initial assessment of development in Serbia. First, the chapter presents inputs for a development vision for Serbia in 2030, elaborated by participants of a strategic foresight workshop as a means of identifying key elements of success for the future of Serbia. Second, the chapter takes a bird’s-eye view to assess Serbia’s development performance on the basis of key statistics on well-being and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and summarises the key constraints to development identified in this report. It concludes by suggesting key strategic directions for the future.

The main body of this initial assessment is contained in Chapter 17, which assesses progress and identifies constraints along the five pillars of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: People, Prosperity, Partnerships and financing, Peace and institutions, and Planet. Whenever relevant and subject to data availability, Serbia’s performance is compared with a set of benchmarks in the region (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia), in Organisation for Co-operation and Development (OECD) economies (Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Greece, Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Turkey), non-OECD economies in the European Union (Croatia and Romania) and non-OECD economies in other regions with relevant development experiences (Kazakhstan, Morocco, Philippines and Uruguay). Comparisons also include regional averages for the Western Balkans and OECD and EU members. Given the global impact of COVID-19, this Overview is followed by a special chapter on the impact of the pandemic in Serbia.

A clear vision of the desired future for Serbia is an important guidepost for Serbia’s National Development Plan (NDP). The Law on the Planning System of the Republic of Serbia establishes the NDP as the highest level long-term development strategic planning instrument, setting out the vision and goals of the country and guidelines for their fulfilment (Republic of Serbia, 2018[3]). Such a vision should provide a description of what citizens of Serbia expect from the economy, society, institutions and the environment and identify the most important elements in each domain. To establish elements of such a vision, a workshop entitled Serbia: Vision and Challenges 2030 was organised in Belgrade on 27 February 2020, gathering 23 participants from a range of public-sector ministries and agencies, the private sector, academia and civil society. The vision was built on the basis of simple narratives of the lives of future citizens of Serbia and subsequent clustering by the five pillars of Sustainable Development of Agenda 2030 and this report: People, Prosperity, Partnerships and financing, Peace and institutions, and Planet.

The narratives proposed for the vision highlighted aspirations for high quality of life, equal opportunities for all and equal development of all regions. The narratives of the workshop evoked mainly middle-aged women with high levels of education. All fictional citizens enjoyed middle-age family lives and had quality jobs with a good work-life balance. Citizens lived in a healthy environment and enjoyed equal access to education, easy access to credit, a good social safety net, life-long learning and a variety of leisure activities. Economic development benefited all regions, and quality infrastructure facilitated movements across the country. The narratives also placed particular emphasis on gender equality, women’s empowerment, integration of minority groups and the vulnerable, and digitalisation.

The resulting vision centres on a cohesive, inclusive and equal society, education, digitalisation, democracy, decentralisation, respect for human rights and environmental quality as the main levers for greater well-being. Box 15.1 presents the vision statements for Serbia in 2030 prepared by participants. Serbia in 2030 is envisioned as a country with an inclusive and equal society built on quality employment, access to quality health care and the preservation of cultural heritage. Knowledge, skills, digitalisation and quality infrastructure are the main drivers of economic growth. Citizens enjoy good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, high levels of decentralisation and quality public services. All citizens of Serbia live in a clean and healthy environment that is resilient to climate change. In terms of the individual dimensions of this vision, education, decentralisation, improved health services, and environmental protection were considered most important, identified through a voting exercise (Figure 15.1).

Building on the vision, well-being around the world and sustainable development as benchmarks, this section reviews Serbia’s development performance. The proposed vision emphasises well-being and sustainable development as the ultimate objectives of development. To assess the well-being of the citizens of Serbia, the OECD’s Well-being Framework uses a mix of objective and subjective indicators across a range of dimensions that matter to people (OECD, 2020[4]) (Box 15.2). A version adapted to the realities of emerging economies compares Serbia to the level of well-being outcomes expected given its level of GDP per capita in ten dimensions covering material conditions, quality of life and quality of relationships. In a second step, this section assesses Serbia’s performance across the five pillars of the SDGs, applying distance-to-target measures across a selection of indicators and building on the analysis in the main body of this report.

Serbia’s well-being performance is mixed. Serbian citizens feel comparatively safe and are exposed to comparatively few homicides given the country’s level of GDP. They also attain better than expected education outcomes in terms of completion rates and test scores on the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).1 The country also performs comparatively well in some facets of environmental quality, such as forest protection. However, there are weaknesses in other aspects of well-being: employment rates are low (49.0% in 2019), as are access to improved sanitation and satisfaction with water quality. Citizens of Serbia are comparatively dissatisfied with other parts of public infrastructure, such as roads and health care, and relatively few people report having “no health problems” (Figure 15.2).

There are significant differences in well-being between men and women in Serbia, and there is scope to improve women’s participation in Serbian society on an equal footing with men (Figure 15.3). As in most countries around the world, women in Serbia have a higher life expectancy than men, and 15-year-old girls perform better in reading tests (OECD, 2020[4]). While gender differences in employment rates in Serbia are lower than those in the region and in OECD countries, they remain far from equality at about a 14.5 percentage point gap in 2018 (55.4% for men and 40.9% for women) (ILO, 2020[18]). This is mainly due to high inactivity rates among women (13.5 percentage points higher than inactivity among men) and the gender unemployment gap (1.3 percentage points) (World Bank, 2020[10]). Women have less access to productive and financial resources, such as credit and land (which is traditionally registered in the man’s name). Women are traditionally expected to take care of unpaid work in the household, lack adequate support to reconcile work and family responsibilities (e.g. via child and elderly care facilities) and are systematically discriminated against by employers (see the People section in Chapter 17).

Although discrimination against women seems to be “very low”, according to the OECD Social Institutions and Gender Index, the well-being analysis highlights gender differences in terms of safety and empowerment in Serbia. Men are more likely than women to feel safe when walking at night in their neighbourhoods (Gallup, 2020[19]; OECD, 2019[20]). While this is not a surprising finding (men in every OECD country feel safer than women), there are indications that gender-based violence remains high in Serbia and that existing legislation needs to be better enforced. Furthermore, there are gender differences in civic engagement and political representation: men are more likely than women to voice their opinion to an official. Women are relatively well represented in the legislative (38% of seats in the national parliament are occupied by a female MP) and in the executive (the government is led by a female prime minister since 2017, and 10 out of 23 minister posts are held by women compared to 4 out of 21 in the previous government) The share of men and women in senior civil service positions is nearly equal (OECD/SIGMA, 2019[21]) (see the People section in Chapter 17).

Not everyone is taking equal part in Serbia’s development (Figure 15.4). In past decades, Serbia managed to ensure more jobs for its population (2019 employment rates were close to the OECD and EU averages), and it is about to undertake reforms in the labour market and social protection systems to align with EU standards. Yet, many groups, including young people, women, some ethnic minorities and those living in non-urban areas, are left behind. Unemployment rates for people under age 25 are about three times higher than for the overall labour force, gender inequalities in the labour market persist, and one-third of Bosniaks2 living in non-urban areas are vulnerable in terms of multi-dimensional poverty. Regardless of whether they live in urban or non-urban areas, about one-quarter of Roma are also vulnerable in this way. Roma constitute 2% of the population, according to the 2011 Census (SORS, 2015[22]), but Roma are generally undercounted and, according to other estimates, could constitute up to 8% of the total population – one of the largest shares in the Western Balkan region (CoE, 2012[23]). In addition, only one in five Roma students are enrolled in upper secondary education (compared to 87% for the country average), their labour force participation rate is half that of the total population, and only 65% of Roma households have access to the public sewage system (World Bank, 2018[24]).

Serbia has a solid base to build its human capital and foster the inclusive structural transformation of the economy but needs to face the challenge of underutilisation. Nearly all children participate in compulsory education, and participation rates at other levels is also high. The share of technical upper-secondary students (74%) is also high, which can promote better school-to-work transitions. However, young people need better labour market integration. They face three times the unemployment rate of adults over age 30, and 23% of them are in low-wage occupations. The lack of better employment prospects acts as a push factor in decisions to migrate abroad. Although migration can be mobilised to foster development at home, it risks compounding the demographic pressures of population ageing.

Despite the financial crunch COVID-19 will present, Serbia cannot afford to miss opportunities for investing in its human capital. Fiscal consolidation was necessary after the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that followed the 2014 floods. The pattern of consolidation has already prevented the expansion of social spending and led to poor outcomes, especially in the health sector. Many public services do not yet operate at their full potential: the education system achieves better test scores for high school students than neighbouring economies but fails to equip students with sufficient job-relevant skills. The social protection system is relatively good in terms of coverage, but transfers (e.g. pensions, social assistance) are generally too low to prevent material deprivation for all. At the same time, the financial sustainability of social protection and the ease of accessing services need to be reviewed. The People section in Chapter 17 identifies five major bottlenecks to the well-being of Serbia’s population (Table 15.1).

Over the past decade, Serbia has made considerable progress in building a more competitive market economy. Thanks to the return of macroeconomic stability, advancements in the structural reform agenda and strengthening of the institutional framework, Serbia is now better placed to seek out a higher and more sustainable growth trajectory based on economic upgrading and smart specialisation. The strong improvements in access to digital services and investment in research and development (R&D) in line with the 2030 Agenda over the past decade (Figure 15.5) support this growth prospect.

A number of outstanding structural constraints need to be addressed to accelerate economic convergence with aspirational peers in the European Union. These include creating a more enabling business environment for investment, in particular through public administration reform: improving the quality and transparency of the regulatory process, reducing the adminsitrative burden on business and reducing corruption. Increasing the capacity of the judiciary to deliver greater legal certaininty without unreasonable delay is also important. Serbia can also make more progress on leveling the playing field for all actors by reducing market dominance in key sectors and reducing the size and distortiveness of state aid. Economic upgrading and smart growth will also require strengthening the skills of its workforce and strengthening the capacities of businesses to innovate and adopt new technologies.

To improve finacing for development, Serbia needs to improve the composition and quality of public spending and diversify the financing options for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), especially start-ups and microenterprises. In light of recent achievements in fiscal consolidation, which include stemming the growth of current expenditures and improving revenue performance (Figure 15.6), there is scope for higher capital expenditures and their deployment towards priority needs that can increase investment, productivity and long-term growth prospects. These efforts need to be complemented by reforms and support instruments to diversify financing options for SMEs, particularly small enterprises and start-ups, which are currently underserved by the banking sector. Measures in this regard have been implemented as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the creation of a portfolio guarantee scheme for SMEs and regulatory reform to ease corporate bond emissions. Other necessary measures include supporting the development of capital markets, microfinance institutions, venture capital, business angels and other alternative funding mechamisms to offer adapted modes of finance for SMEs and innovative new firms, buildling on recent legislation on open-ended funds with a public offering and alternative investment funds.

Serbia’s institutions have made progress since the beginning of the democratic transition. The country has engaged in a comprehensive reform that aims at increasing the efficiency of the civil service. Service delivery and human resource management has been improving since 2017 (OECD, 2020[33]) Serbia’s appeal to investors has been increasing thanks to an improving business regulatory environment. Trust in government has increased since 2007: 48% of the citizens of Serbia reported that they had confidence in the national government. Confidence in the judiciary, although still low, has been increasing with respect to 18 years ago (Figure 15.7). Moreover, Serbia is perceived as a very safe country. The intentional homicide rate (1.2 victims per 10 000 population) is declining and among the lowest in the region (together with Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia).

Moving forward, Serbia’s capacity to promote durable and inclusive development depends on achieving three main strategic goals (Table 15.4). First, the independence of the judiciary needs to be further protected to ensure that it plays its role as a control on the executive and legislative powers and thus contribute to strengthening democratic institutions. Moreover, judges need more skills to better enforce laws that uphold competition in markets. Second, Serbia needs a harmonised regional development and decentralisation framework to reverse the “Belgradization process”, promote balanced regional development and leave no one behind, anywhere. Third, Serbia has to pursue the professionalisation of its public sector. This could help discourage patronage and corruption and enhance civil servants’ incentives to plan long term.

Environmental quality is a major source of concern in Serbia (Figure 15.8). While a large share of the population has access to drinking water, water quality is low and poses a threat to the health of citizens. Improvements in water governance and the establishment of an independent environmental agency are key to improving water quality. Air pollution is particularly high; Belgrade is one of the most polluted capitals in Europe. In 2009, Serbia adopted a normative framework on air protection, but implementation is lagging. Serbian authorities need to adopt a more systematic and integrated approach to tackle and reduce significantly the impact of air pollution in the country. Climate change and natural hazards may exacerbate negative environmental outcomes, urging the country to diversify its energy mix. Serbia remains highly dependent on coal and lacks a coherent long-term strategy that combines energy and climate targets. Serbia has set targets to increase the share of renewable energy sources in final energy consumption to 27% by 2020 and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 9.8% with respect to the 1990 baseline by 2030. The preparation of the National Energy and Climate Plan should remedy the lack of long-term objectives and planning for emissions and the energy sector.

To achieve rapid, inclusive and sustainable development, Serbia will need a development strategy that establishes a vision for the future of Serbia, builds on the country’s assets and opportunities and addresses its most pressing constraints. The preparation of Serbia’s development plan, to be drawn up for the first time in application of the Law on the Planning System of the Republic of Serbia, is an opportunity to establish such a development strategy and to materialise it in the highest level long-term planning instrument in the country. The vision and key constraints presented in this assessment can serve as a basis for a process of priority setting along these lines.

The necessary concerted action to recover from the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to set a clear course for a brighter future for the country. Following the period of rapid growth in the first decade of the 2000s, Serbia had to overcome three recessions linked to the 2008 global financial crisis, a second dip linked to public financial distress in Europe in 2012 and very significant flooding in 2014. Having recovered from the 2014 recession with a stabilised macroeconomic and public finance situation, the country today retains some margin for intervening to lead a new recovery. In implementing a sizeable fiscal stimulus package, the country has an opportunity to steer the pace and direction of structural transformation in a way that best contributes to achieving its vision for the future.

The process of integration into the European Union is a key strategic objective for Serbia and a key asset in its development. The strategic importance of EU accession is clearly stated in key planning and policy documents, including the National Programme for the adoption of the EU acquis, Serbia’s successive economic reform programmes (ERPs) (Government of the Republic of Serbia, 2019[40]) and successive needs assessment documents to orient international development assistance (Government of the Republic of Serbia, 2014[41]) but also in declarations of Serbian officials at the highest level. This process grants mutual market access, provided under the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and the special preferences granted by the European Union to Western Balkan economies. The integration process started formally in 2014 and had led to opening 18 of the 35 negotiation chapters by mid-2019, two of which (Science and Research, and Education) are closed. This process has brought momentum to key areas of policy reform on top of the impetus provided by internal considerations in Serbia. The centrality of EU accession in Serbia’s development policy has not prevented the country from building solid partnerships with other players, including the People’s Republic of China (hereafter ‘China’), Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

For EU integration to drive Serbia’s development policy, public support and the progressive normalisation of relations with Kosovo are critical. Public support for EU membership has waned over the years. The share of citizens supporting EU accession has fallen from a high of 73% in 2009 to 53% in June 2019 while remaining well above the share of those opposing accession (Ministry of European Integration, 2019[42]). Normalisation of relations with Kosovo remains a highly contentious issue in Serbia, and differences within EU member states do not help clarify what will be required should an accession decision be tabled. While technical agreements have been reached among the parties, the dialogue process, held under the auspices of the European Union and some of its member states, has often stalled. In this respect, the prospect of EU integration is an important factor in ensuring normalisation can happen (Huszka, 2020[43]).

A second key strategic axis for Serbia’s development is fostering structural transformation towards a knowledge economy competitive in higher value added sectors. Serbia can build on the foundations laid over the past two decades, including improved macroeconomic stability and considerable FDI attraction, to strengthen investment and productivity growth. Upgrading the economy can be achieved through a combination of attracting FDI in higher value added activities, where current FDI incentives favour labour-intensive industries (see the Prosperity section in Chapter 17), and supporting deeper and wider integration of domestic SMEs with the FDI sector and global value chains (GVCs).

A key line of action to achieve industrial upgrading is to strengthen Serbia’s human capital and skills system. The country has a solid base for upgrading its human capital: participation in compulsory education is almost universal, and the country performs better than its neighbours on tests of learning outcomes, such as PISA (see the People section in Chapter 17). However, the system does not equip the majority of students for the labour market, as long and difficult school-to-work transitions and enterprise surveys suggest. Strengthening human capital and the capacity of domestic firms to innovate and adopt new technologies is critically important for the development of sectors with higher technological content and higher value added.

Focusing support on the conditions necessary for the emergence of key transformational industries can foster economic upgrading and structural transformation. To this end, Serbia needs to overcome key obstacles in the business environment in order to make markets contestable and attractive. This will require strengthening recent reforms in the competition and state support domain, as well as further decided action on corruption. Serbia can also build on recent successes to ensure that sectors with productive and export potential, such as information and communications technology (ICT), agriculture and food processing, machinery, electronics, etc., thrive. This will require support for innovation and its framework conditions, including the links between universities and productive sectors and the development of appropriate financing instruments for start-ups and innovation. The recently adopted Smart Specialisation Strategy, which identifies high-potential sectors for development across all the regions of Serbia, is an important step in setting out the vision and path for economic development and upgrading in Serbia.

A third key strategic axis is to develop further the policy instruments that can make the development process more inclusive of all citizens, fostering social cohesion. Incomes before taxes and transfers are very unequal in Serbia, reflecting overlapping inequality in access to economic opportunities along gender, geographic, age and ethnic lines. Young people’s and women’s labour market outcomes are worrisome, as they also reflect an underutilisation of key productive assets. Certain groups, especially Roma and Bosniaks living in non-urban areas, face overlapping deprivations, including in access to education, labour market opportunities and public services.

Territorialised economic development policies and improved skills development policies can contribute to creating opportunities for all. Regional disparities remain large in Serbia, and the lack of a harmonised regional development framework makes it difficult to ensure that territories can make the most of their comparative advantages. Appropriate development of key infrastructure, for example, can help ensure that, while more developed regions follow a higher value added development strategy, regions with comparatively abundant labour can exploit their cost advantage in labour-intensive manufacturing sectors for a period of time. Likewise, the necessary improvement in skills development policies (through education, training and active labour market policies) is critical to ensure equality of opportunities for all.

Resourcing social policies is a key condition of improving their effectiveness. The fiscal consolidation process has taken its toll on social sectors, lowering expenditure on health, education and social transfers as a share of GDP. While transfers contribute to significantly lowering income inequality to levels common in EU countries, the limited coverage rate of social assistance and the relatively small size of social assistance transfers do not suffice to curtail poverty significantly. Social protection relies in large part on payroll tax funding, which is challenging in an economy with relatively high informality and payroll tax evasion rates.

Whatever its strategic direction, Serbia will need to ensure it maintains macroeconomic stability. Following a period of rapid but unbalanced growth up to the 2008 financial crisis and the recessions that followed, Serbia has managed to build a stable macroeconomic environment. Macroeconomic stability has contributed to stronger investment and export growth. The fiscal consolidation process put a limit on public capital investment and put social sectors under strain. At the same time, it generated fiscal room to manoeuvre at a critical juncture. The country could benefit from rules-based fiscal policy to ensure an appropriate balance between current and capital expenditure, ensure that public investment encourages private domestic investment and allow for countercyclical policy when it is needed.

To implement its forthcoming National Development Plan, Serbia will also need to tackle outstanding issues in public governance and administration. As documented in the Peace and institutions section in Chapter 17, Serbia has made progress in public administration reform, recently reformed its planning architecture and has set up a legal framework to fight corruption and abuse of power. However, capacity building is needed for effective implementation. Serbia still needs to improve regulatory transparency and stability, reduce red tape and effectively tackle corruption to encourage investment through more contestable and competitive markets. Strengthening the effectiveness and independence of the judiciary is not only important to improve investment prospects but also a key item in an agenda to strengthen the rule of law in Serbia. Increased administrative efficiency and rules-based policy would also reduce the burden of accessing social benefits, making them more effective in fighting poverty and exclusion.

Last, progress in all three strategic priorities will require that the next stage of development in Serbia be greener and more climate resilient. High air and water pollution lead to Serbia having a sizeable death burden due to air pollution and particularly low citizen satisfaction with the quality of water for its income level. In a knowledge-based economy, agglomeration effects are particularly important, with access to talent pools driving the location of knowledge activities and talented professionals. Establishing adequate environmental quality of life is necessary for Serbia’s would-be high-tech cities to become truly cosmopolitan centres. Given Serbia’s mineral wealth and its reliance on coal-fired thermal power plants, addressing the environmental sustainability of Serbia’s development requires first and foremost aligning energy policy with environmental sustainability objectives and commitments. The development of an integrated energy and climate plan can contribute. Addressing environmental sustainability will also require improvements in the enforcement of existing environmental protection provisions.


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← 1. PISA measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges (OECD, 2020[7]).

← 2. The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey survey asks household heads about their ethnic origin. This group corresponds to households whose heads identify as Bosniak (Bošnjak) in their responses to the survey.

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