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Bulgaria’s Shrinkage Has Its Positive Side July 10, 2011

Posted by Yilan in Bulgaria, Turkey.
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Population decline has become the norm, but the demographic news isn’t all bad.

 

What we all suspected is true: Bulgaria is shrinking.

 

Preliminary results of the 2011 census show there are 7,351,234 Bulgarians, compared to 7,932,984 a decade ago. Not so long ago, in the mid-1980s, the then-communist country was awaiting the 9-millionth Bulgarian. He or she never came. The expulsion of Bulgarian Turks in the mid-’80s, the mass migration of 800,000 to 1 million people after the collapse of the communist regime, a falling birthrate, and high emigration to other European countries have all contributed to the decline.

 

Bulgaria is not alone among European Union countries for a downward population trend. Last year, the EU statistics agency, Eurostat, reported that populations fell in eight of the 27 nations, while immigration accounted for most of the bloc’s 1.4 million new residents – bringing total population to 501.1 million. Bulgaria, along with Hungary, Latvia, and Germany, all had negative growth rates.

 

The figures help explain why Bulgarians are obsessed with demography. Births make the headlines: a retired 62-year-old psychiatrist gave birth to twins in 2010; a record 28 babies were registered at a Sofia hospital this year; “I Want a Baby,” an NGO that promotes in-vitro fertilization, is one of the most popular organizations in the country.

 

The CIA World Factbook shows Bulgaria is 72nd of 227 countries and territories in gross domestic product, 63rd of 216 in Internet users, and 228th out of 231 in population growth. “It points to the real problem of Bulgaria,” says Kiril Valchev, a host on Darik Radio, an independent news and talk station that broadcasts nationally.

 

AT HOME, ABROAD

 

The frustrations over demographics are many and popularized, including fears that too many young people are leaving. Yes, young Bulgarians study in other EU countries in great numbers, and only Estonia beats Bulgaria in having the highest emigration rate in the EU. Add the people who left for Europe, the United States, and Canada immediately after 1989, and the drain of skilled and educated people becomes all the more impressive. Facebook helped expose a painful discovery – some Sofia residents recently found more classmates abroad than at home.

 

Another popular fear is that Bulgarians will disappear altogether. Panicky statements from pessimistic experts, some of whom say there will be fewer than 5 million Bulgarians in 2050, mix with familiar Balkan frustrations about minorities becoming majorities – in other words, the Romani and Turkish minorities of today will outnumber ethnic Bulgarians in the future. Contributing to these fears are the history of shifting empires when the Bulgarian people were at times near the brink of extinction.

 

There is also concern that only Sofia and a few big towns will remain. In fact, Bulgaria is growing increasingly asymmetric, due to poor regional management. Its northwest is the EU’s poorest region. There is also a common adage that “poor demographics means poor quality of life.” Bulgaria has only slightly more territory than South Korea; the difference is that South Korea is an economically vibrant nation of 48 million. You have more to choose from; therefore you get more competition and better chances.

 

SILVER LININGS

 

This is the pessimistic side, a popular one in Bulgaria, with its highly skeptical mindset. However, there is also an optimistic one. If one is ingenious and positive, one can find the bright side of every fear.

 

Yes, young people are leaving the country, but many are coming back and emigration rates have slowed. Some politicians, including former King Simeon II, have called for bringing home the yuppies and placing them in top government posts. Bulgarians are returning anyway because of financial crises in their host countries – Greece, Spain, and Italy among them. And those who have chosen to remain in other countries organize themselves in an efficient diaspora. The world is not so big these days.

 

Serious demographers say Bulgarians will not disappear. After 2000, with life becoming better, there was a mini baby-boom. Twice as many children were born in 2001 and 2002 than in 1996 and 1997, a period of hyperinflation and turmoil. Kindergartens, which closed in the 1990s for want of students, have had to reopen.

 

An increasing number of citizens see newcomers not as a threat, but as a chance. Since 2007, when Bulgaria joined the European Union, non-Bulgarians have been helping to revive villages. English, Irish, Russians, Germans, and Dutch have bought properties in Bulgaria. Financial turmoil hit some of these investors, but most of them remain, helping to boost the economy as well as breathe life into local customs and arts.

 

The argument that there are too few people for a country with 110,879 square kilometers may indeed be a problem, but emptiness could be considered a blessing. You can fill it with your imagination, businesses, agriculture, tourism, and … people. The country’s small population also gives young, talented people the opportunity to advance quickly in their careers. Here you can find accomplished journalists in their 20s, government ministers in their 30s, and top managers in their 40s.

 

The bright side I mention doesn’t mean everything is perfect. Demography still provokes rather more fear than hope. But awareness about chances will help – and the public is hungry for them. One example comes from the 2011 census: the fact that 3.1 million people used the Internet to fill out the form was widely celebrated as a proof of an intelligent population, defying the skeptics’ predictions.

 

Wise government policy is also needed. As a result of the pressure from “I Want a Baby,” a state fund was created to provide access to in-vitro fertilization, and 13,000 women have benefited since 2009. Bureaucrats should take note.

 

Skeptical Bulgarians also need to remember that things here are always better than they seem.

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