Population Meltdown

Bulgaria’s latest national census reveals a global record of decline

In an abandoned village in Bulgaria, near the Greek border | Photo: Talikas

For a European country the size of Germany, with 80 million, or France, with 60, the loss of half a million people might not mean all that much – about the number living in your average Paris suburb. But for a state like Bulgaria, which applied for EU membership in 2001 with a population of 7.9 million just under the size of Austria, a loss like this is a disaster, equal to the population of its second largest city, and about 9% of the country. And yet, Bulgarian cities do not tend to shrink, on the contrary they are becoming larger and larger as a result of an initiative to concentrate most of the population in the state’s urban regions.

In just ten years, Bulgaria’s population has declined by nearly 600,000 people, bringing the number of residents to 7,351,234, according to the preliminary results of the nation-wide census by the National Statistical Institute (NSI). Bulgaria was the first country in the European Union to launch a count of its population on Feb. 1, and will be followed by all other member-countries in the months to come.

“There will be a nation-wide census every ten years,” EurActiv’s senior editor Georgi Gotev told The Vienna Review, explaining that the overall population of the EU is expected to equal a total of 500 million people.

This year’s census was Bulgaria’s first as a member of the European Union. The head count, under Director Finka Denkova of the Demographic and Social Statistics Division at NSI, was conducted in accordance with EU regulations and has thus become part of the European and global data bases.

Bulgaria’s population was at its peak in the mid-1980s when the country had nearly nine million residents, which was mainly due to the country’s average fertility rate of 2.05 births. Since then until the mid-2000s, the figures by Eurostat have indicated a relatively steady average of around 1.2 births per woman.

The recent census indicates a drop in the number of inhabitants by over 1.5 million people in the last quarter of a century, which EurActiv explains is not only a record of depopulation in the EU but on a global level as well.

The census revealed that one of the main reasons for the decrease is the fact that there are more deaths than births in the country. The number of residents over the age of 65 has grown from 16.8% in 2001 to 18.9% ten years later, while the one of children in the country has declined. This is a clear indication that fewer and fewer employed people will have to provide for a growing population of elderly people, Bulgarian daily Dnevnik explained.

“There is a trend of increasing birth rates among Bulgarians, however, a large number of the children are born abroad,” Gotev said. “Many of them don’t even have Bulgarian citizenship.”

Migration flows are a major factor in population shifts and in this case the level of out-migration, as a response to a weak economy, has been high. And while this is a global phenomenon, fewer European countries have lost as large a part of their residents as Bulgaria.

“Millions of people from Catholic Italy, Poland, and Ireland have moved to the United States over the years,” Gotev continued, “and yet, none of these countries has experienced such a large population decrease, because their birth rates are much higher. This is not the case in Bulgaria.”

The number of people who have left the country permanently over the past decade is over 190,000, official emigration figures show. The rest of the migrants keep an address in Bulgaria but do not live there, and were thus not present for the census.

Boris Nenchev is a Bulgarian immigrant who has lived abroad for five years now, and is currently employed by an international company in Vienna.

“I came to Vienna right after I finished high school in Plovdiv, [Bulgaria],” Nenchev said. “… I wanted to meet people from different countries and pursue a higher education according to Western standards, hoping that I would get a job, gain experience and perhaps return to Bulgaria one day.”

Many other Bulgarians also decide to stay, he explained, pointing out that for most of them it is a choice between being with their family and relatives, and advancing professionally in a Western European country.

“I’d like to stay here for another few years in order to acquire the necessary experience in my professional field of work,” Nenchev added. “I hope that one day the company will be well represented in Bulgaria, so potentially I can go back.”

Still, migration, accounting for a third of the decline, is not the most significant factor, according to NSI. The remaining two thirds are the result of natural causes.

“Sixty-seven percent [of the overall decline] reflects the high number of deaths compared to the number of births,” Denkova said, a correlation that has existed for the past 30 years. “And it is very hard to turn the demographic trends around.”

The current annual growth rate in Bulgaria is estimated at -0.7%. Among other countries with negative demographic trends, it is followed by Estonia (-0.63%), Latvia (-0.61%), Hungary (-0.25%), according EurActiv.

“[At the beginning of May], Germany initiated its census, which is also expected to indicate a reduction of the country’s population,” Gotev said. The state’s current growth rate is -0.05%.

Bulgaria was one of seven EU countries, which alongside their traditional counting methods launched an online census as an option. The statistical institute noted the success of their internet campaign, which was active during the first nine days of February. The institution recorded that 41.2% of the population preferred to take the online version.

“It is incredible that almost half of the country’s residents decided to participate in the online count,” Nikolay Tsekov, demographer at Bulgaria’s National Academy of Sciences (BAN), said. It is a big technological achievement, he claimed, and is as accurate as the traditional method of counting the population.

The positive feedback seems to prevail, as Petya Sabinova, former managing editor for The Vienna Review, also agreed that the online option has been a success. She sees, however, a problem with the census’ timing.

“In their rush to be the first in the EU, the authorities did this in the worst possible time – winter months,” she explained. “Many elderly people leave their villages for the winter and spend the time with relatives in the bigger cities, where they have access to central heating, a toilet that’s not outside of the house, etc.”  As a result, many people have been counted as residents of a big city rather than their village where they spend most of the year living, Sabinova said.

Migration from small villages to the big cities has been an ongoing process in the recent years. A third of all Bulgarians live in the seven biggest cities with populations above 100,000 people, NSI results showed.

“Close to three fourths (72.9%) of the population lives in the cities,” Denkova said. “The capital Sofia has the highest number of inhabitants – 1,359,520 and is followed by the second largest city, Plovdiv, with 671, 918 people.”

Only 27.1% of the population lives in the villages, and because of a steady migration to the urban areas, currently there are 186 completely depopulated villages. According to Sabinova, this particular statistical outcome may have resulted from the fact that at the time of the census many people were temporarily residing in the cities, however, as Denkova explained, it has been a long-term goal to concentrate most of the population in the state’s urban regions.

Migration, both inside of the country and out – primarily to the west, has been an ongoing process for decades now, and not only in Bulgaria. It is a pattern of emigration that may also be fueled in the next coming years by the EU requirement that Germany and Austria open their labor market to residents of the 2004 new member countries, said Gotev.

“Several hundred Eastern Europeans are expected to move to these countries, mainly to Germany, in the next few years,” he said, emphasizing the fact that an inflow of immigrants should not be a problem for these countries.

Eastern Europeans, he added, tend to integrate easily and well in both countries.

“…One reason I stayed in Vienna,” Nenchev said, “is that after all these years, I have really come to feel comfortable, to feel at home here.”

And he is not the only one. As Gotev pointed out, close to half of the names in the Austrian phonebook come from an Eastern European country, a truth neither Austrians, nor Hungarians, nor Czechs, Serbs or Croats can deny.

Whether more Bulgarians will follow is only a matter of time.

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