Why is the population of Bulgaria decreasing

Bulgaria's demographic turnaround?

Bulgaria faces enormous demographic challenges. However, the latest migration trends are at least cause for cautious optimism, my optimists.

If you google “Bulgaria” and “population development”, you quickly find out what the media and science have been reporting on for years: The country's population is one of the fastest shrinking in the world. That cannot be glossed over. "I think it's clear," says Sergey Tsvetarsky, head of the National Statistical Institute (NSI), "that it doesn't look so good."

The totals speak volumes. In 1988 the population of Bulgaria peaked at 8.9 million. It is now 6.9 million. As a result, the country's population has declined by a whopping 22.5 percent in just over three decades. This decline is even more dramatic than in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where war raged for four years. The NSI's “realistic” (if not to say pessimistic) forecast suggests that the country's population will continue to shrink, a 35 percent decrease from 1988 by 2050.

In 1950, a record 182,571 babies were born in Bulgaria. With some fluctuations, this number has since declined. Last year, 61,538 children were born in Bulgaria. In 1950, the highest natural increase of all time was recorded with 108,437 more births than deaths. However, since 1990 deaths have exceeded births. Last year, 46,545 more Bulgarians died than were born.

Many people have emigrated in the past three decades, especially since Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. In 2010, 308,089 Bulgarian citizens were registered as resident in the EU28 plus the four countries of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). The actual number is likely to have been higher, however, if one includes people who stayed and worked illegally in these countries and only legalized their status at a later point in time. In any case, by 2019 this number had risen to 890,000.

In 2005 there were 39,153 Bulgarians registered in Germany alone. In 2019 that number rose by 820 percent to 360,170. Several hundred thousand Bulgarians also live in Turkey. According to Tsvetarsky, up to 1.5 million Bulgarian citizens live abroad today. In his opinion, the rapid population decline in Bulgaria is half due to emigration and half due to natural causes.

The latter is related to the country's low birth rate. At 1.58, the fertility rate, i.e. the average number of children a woman gives birth to in the course of her life, is almost exactly the EU average. However, in the difficult period after the collapse of communism, the birth rate in Bulgaria fell to 1.1 in 1997. To keep the population at a constant level, the value should be 2.1.

What makes the situation worse compared to most other European countries is - apart from the birth rate - the high mortality rate. Bulgarians can expect to live to be 74.9 years old - this is the lowest life expectancy in the EU. Serious problems hide behind this number alone. For example, women live an average of seven years longer than men. According to the head of the Department of Population and Social Statistics at NSI Magdalena Kostova, the life expectancy of men has decreased due to the unusually high number of Bulgarians who die between the ages of 40 and 60.

After Romania, Bulgaria also has the highest child mortality rate in the EU, which in turn has an impact on life expectancy. Although no concrete data are available, this could indicate serious problems with the health situation of the mostly poor Roma minority in Bulgaria.

Back and forth

All former communist countries in Europe suffer to different degrees from the same basic problems of aging societies, low birth rates and emigration. But in every country developments have been different over the years.

One factor that only applies to Bulgaria is the Turkish minority. Hundreds of thousands have emigrated, fled or "exchanged" with Turkey over the past century and a half. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Bulgarians came to the country from Turkey and Greece before the Second World War.

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Even after the war there were several waves of emigration from Bulgarian Turks and Muslims, especially in 1989. With the opening of the borders, around 350,000 or well over a third of the Turkish minority fled from the years of forced “Bulgarization” by the communist regime, which also changed Turkish name provided in Christian and Slavic.

Exact numbers are unknown, but around half returned after the fall of communism in late 1989, with many leaving the country again when the economy collapsed in the 1990s.

In 2015, there were 378,658 Bulgarian-born people in Turkey, a number that had fallen by 100,000 in 15 years. In contrast to the Turks and Muslims who had immigrated to Turkey from the Balkans in the past, the Bulgarian Turks had only come to Turkey relatively recently and often maintained close ties with their country of origin.

In contrast to previous generations, they could keep both citizenships and easily commute between their new and old homeland.

With Bulgaria's accession to the EU in 2007 and the resulting unrestricted right of residence and employment for all citizens, Bulgarian citizenship gained in value compared to Turkish citizenship for everyone who moved to the West.

In fact, numerous people return every summer to renew their documents. In addition, in recent years more and more people have moved back to their old place of residence in Bulgaria in their pensions or are returning to take up employment or start a business. In 2019, 14,640 people came to Bulgaria from Turkey, the vast majority of them Bulgarian Turks.

Bulgarian Turks emigrated to Turkey until the 1990s, but now, like other Bulgarians, they are emigrating to the EU. They are not only following their Bulgarian compatriots from Bulgaria, but also thousands of ethnic Bulgarians from Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova who have been granted Bulgarian citizenship, as well as many of the 81,000 citizens of North Macedonia who have chosen Bulgarian citizenship.

Bulgarian nationalists were keen to grant citizenship to Macedonians and ethnic Bulgarians abroad, says Marin Lessenski of the Open Society Institute in Sofia. The credo was: "Give them passports and they will come," said Lessenski. “But they took the passports and moved to Western Europe instead.” This means that a significant but unknown number of Bulgarians who are registered as resident abroad are either from Macedonia or are people who have never lived in Bulgaria .

From lack of jobs to lack of labor

In the past 30 years the history of emigration from Bulgaria unfolded in different chapters. First there was the flight of the Bulgarian Turks, whose emigration has to be taken into account if one wants to compare today's Bulgarian population with that of 1990.

With the collapse of the old planned economy, the 1990s turned out to be an exceptionally difficult decade. Bulgaria no longer prevented its citizens from going abroad, but visas for western countries were difficult to obtain. As a result, people who emigrated with their families in the 1990s were generally better educated and qualified and welcomed as immigrants abroad, particularly in North America.

In the 2000s, more and more Bulgarians settled in the EU, where they often had illegal employment, initially as seasonal workers in tourism in Greece and in agriculture in Spain and Italy.

Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, but its citizens did not receive unrestricted residence and employment rights in many countries of the Union until 2014. From then on, many tried to legalize their status while others emigrated. In the last few years a new development has started. Bulgaria may be the poorest member of the EU, but at least until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy has developed positively every year.

The return of the gardeners

Who picked the fruit or the vegetables you eat? If you live in Central or Western Europe, there is a good chance that it was excavated, picked or harvested by a Bulgarian.

Bulgarians have been working either as immigrants or harvest workers in the fields and orchards in countries such as Spain, Italy or Great Britain for over twenty years.

Anyone in the West who thinks that this is a relatively new phenomenon is wrong.

For the people of Bulgaria, the end of the Cold War not only meant that they could travel abroad again, but also enabled the resumption of “Gurbetchiystvo”, the centuries-old tradition of labor migration.

More than 300 years ago, Bulgarians first moved abroad to work in horticulture, wrote historian Marijana Jakimova. In the late 17th century, the Ottoman occupiers recruited Bulgarians to grow vegetables for their garrisons during their wars against Austria-Hungary and Russia. They were later granted privileges in return for practicing other trades. According to records, Bulgarian vegetable farmers were active in Belgrade in the 1830s.

When Austro-Hungarian cities like Vienna and Budapest began to flourish and grow in the course of the 19th century, Bulgarians planted vegetable gardens on the outskirts to supply the population.

Similar to today, some settled where they found work, while others returned home over the winter. Money was sent home to support the family or to build a house.

The heyday of the Bulgarian vegetable growers in Central Europe was the time between the wars. After the Balkan War and the First World War, Bulgaria was destroyed, at the same time the cities that emerged from the chaotic collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had to feed their people. In Austria, the Bulgarians were given the right to continue their nurseries.

In the interwar period, vegetable farmers also worked in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia.

In Austria, however, they became so successful that domestic competitors tried to force them out of the country in the mid-1930s. That changed suddenly in 1938 when Hitler occupied the country. A precursor to post-war recruitment agreements was signed with Bulgaria. From then on, Bulgarian farm workers became more and more important, as they had to replace more and more Germans and Austrians who were sent to the front with the outbreak of war.

This chapter ended tragically. According to Jakimova, those who returned to their homeland after the war were executed as "collaborators".

However, labor migration was not limited to farm workers. In the 19th century, construction crews, which sometimes comprised all men of a village who were fit for work, traveled across the Balkans and Asia Minor between spring and autumn.

Historian Dimitar Bechev also noted that until the establishment of the modern Bulgarian state in 1878, the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, was the largest urban settlement in Bulgaria, attracting job seekers and business people.

His own ancestors, who come from what is now the Bulgarian part of the Rhodope Mountains in Thrace, worked as tailors on the now Turkish Aegean coast near Izmir (formerly Smyrna), where it was easy for them and their families, since they spoke Greek, to find their way into the people there to integrate resident Greek communities.

As everywhere in Europe, Bulgarians emigrated to the USA in large numbers from the second half of the 19th century. There they were typically drawn to the industrial cities of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. In 1924, the United States put an end to mass immigration, so those who came after often moved on to South American countries such as Argentina and Uruguay.

The end of communism cleared the way for emigration and seasonal work. In the 1990s, more opportunities were offered to the more highly qualified, with many going to Chicago and Toronto, which became the largest Bulgarian communities outside of Bulgaria. From the turn of the century, however, the number of emigrants who initially worked illegally in EU countries increased. When they joined the EU in 2007, they were gradually able to take up legal employment there.

Now, however, the shrinking working-age population has meant that the main problem is no longer unemployment, but rather labor shortages. In 2001 the unemployment rate in Bulgaria was 20.3 percent. In 2019 it was 4.2 percent, and according to economist Georgi Angelov, the country also had the highest employment rate of all time.

In the 1990s, Angelov said, “The economy was so bad that people left the country and moved to the West. But then the situation was reversed. Due to the worsening demographic development, we now do not have enough workers! ”The situation has“ changed dramatically ”in the past three years, according to Angelov.

The labor shortage has several effects. According to Angelov, wages have risen by around 12 percent a year. This prevents foreign companies from investing in Bulgaria. Companies that are already there are not withdrawing, however, but are opening factories in formerly structurally weak parts of the country.

The employment rates of the older workforce and minorities are increasing and as wages soar, Angelov says, Bulgaria is "becoming more and more attractive". The result is a decline in net migration as more people either return to the country or immigrate.

Last year, for example, the number of emigrants exceeded the number of immigrants by only 2,012 people. That is a drastic change compared to the previous decade, said Tsvetarsky, when there were still around 30,000 people. However, the breakdown of the net migration figure reveals interesting details. If only Bulgarian citizens are taken into account, 14,376 more left the country than returned. At 23,555, however, the number of returnees has never been as high as it is today.

In other Balkan countries, the major difficulty is that the authorities have no idea how many people are leaving the country and how many are returning. This used to be a serious problem in Bulgaria too, but the situation has now improved.

More often than ever before, Bulgarians register before moving abroad in order to avoid double taxation and double payment of health insurance contributions. Increasingly, they also report their return to the authorities and can thus make use of a wide range of services - from a place in a kindergarten to the issue of a resident parking permit for parts of Sofia.

For this reason, Bulgaria's population data, even if they certainly still have gaps, have never been as reliable as they are today.However, the increased number of registrations may not indicate high numbers with regard to the extent of the population movement, but rather are due to the fact that more people legalize their residence status in their home country or abroad - which they did not before - or report any change of residence which they did not previously considered necessary.

Who - apart from the returning Bulgarians - will still come to Bulgaria? Last year, 14,374 foreign citizens settled in the country, while 2,010 left Bulgaria. Among the immigrants there were certainly also people of Bulgarian nationality, primarily pensioners who had acquired foreign citizenship. This also included Turks, as well as several thousand Russians who settled on the Black Sea coast after their retirement.

However, higher wages and better working conditions, at least until the pandemic, persuaded more and more young and well-educated Bulgarians to return. Hristo Boyadzhiev heads Tuk-Tam (in German: “Here-Da”), a network organization that connects the diaspora with their home country. The situation today is completely different than in the 1990s, when those who left the country mostly did so “with no intention of returning”, unless they wanted to retire. Today, he says, "there are completely different options."

Discrimination background

Not only in the last few decades has Bulgarians worried about the demographic fate of the nation, especially in nationalist political circles. In the early 1980s, in view of the falling birth rate and its possible effects, the communists toyed with the idea of ​​encouraging young people to live in a quixotic and failed “republic of youth” in the Strandscha region in southeastern Bulgaria.

In the past, the higher birth rate of the Bulgarian Turks gave rise to fears that they might outnumber the Orthodox Bulgarians. Today, their birth rate is the same or lower, and their share of the population is unlikely to have changed from the 8.8 percent according to the 2011 census.

The Bulgarian nationalists are now targeting the Roma, who have a higher birth rate. Their proportion of the population is not known, however, as many Roma do not profess themselves as such. There is little known about concrete political measures aimed at encouraging Bulgarian families to have more children.

An unspoken reason, however, is that this issue worries the nationalists who have held this portfolio in the government in recent years, but they are even more concerned that the financial incentives for larger families may not have any effect on Orthodox Bulgarians , but very much encourage the unloved Roma.

In turn, labor shortages have led Roma and Bulgarian Turks, for the first time since the fall of communism, to find work in areas previously denied them due to discrimination. If they do not have the appropriate qualifications, they will be trained for the first time in decades by employers desperate for work.

Factors such as low qualifications and low educational standards, which are linked, for example, to the low wages for teachers, have long been overlooked in the country. Now the government has taken on these problems. One of the measures taken in recent years is the attempt to track down school dropouts. However, it turned out that many of them had emigrated with their parents and no longer live in the country. However, the majority of those who are still here are Roma, many of whom are now going back to school.

Careful optimism

According to the "realistic" forecast of the NSI, the population of Bulgaria will have fallen to 6.53 million in 2030. There will be 5.8 million in 2050 and 4.9 million in 2080. Tsvetarsky remains optimistic, especially if the net migration trend of recent years continues and more people return to Bulgaria.

In his opinion, if the economic situation is good, the population will level off at around six million between 2040 and 2050. However, he warns against focusing solely on the size of the Bulgarian population and disregarding the structure of the population, in view of the fact that Bulgarians are getting older and poorly educated. “These factors deserve more attention,” says Tsvetarsky.

Bulgaria faces enormous demographic challenges. In the meantime, preparations have started for next year's census, the result of which will be trend-setting. Boyadzhiev from Tuk-Tam refers to the Swede Hans Rosling, who argued in his bestseller “Factfulness” that pessimism often results from judgments based on data that are no longer valid. "GDP is developing well, we're growing, so I'm on the side of cautious optimism."

The article reflects the opinion of the author and does not represent the point of view of BIRN or the ERSTE Foundation

Original in English. First published on July 9th2020 on Reportingdemocracy.org a journalistic platform of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. This text was created as part of the Europe’s Futures project.
Translated from the English by Barbara Maya.

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