By MILENA HRISTOVA February 26, 2014
Surveys about Bulgaria's gloomy demographics - we have a surfeit of them. But it was only recently that the full scale of the catastrophe and the severity of its impact became clear. The abstract problem – discussed in percentages and demographics – turned into empty streets, barren land, scrappy towns and villages where people are the most visible absence.
The country's overall population decline has officially been one of the most severe in the world for years already. Now EU and World Bank trustworthy forecasts show that the headlong fall in Bulgaria's demography will remain a steady trend over the next few decades, shrinking the population from 9 million to 4 million by 2050.
It is not just that economic stagnation has brought birth rates to shuddering record-lows, while mortality rates are climbing mercilessly. On top of the gray-haired demographic picture comes migration – both inside the country and outside it into wealthier countries, primarily in Western Europe. The outflow is about to accelerate as employment slows down at home and a high percentage of graduates continue to seek opportunities abroad. Many fear that the lifting of all work restrictions across the European bloc at the start of 2014 may prove to be the last nail in the coffin.
Bulgaria's demographic dilemma is evident in the 181 villages that now have populations of 0. An additional 21.4% of all other villages and towns have between 1 and 49 residents, e.g. they are doomed to disappear in the short term.
Bulgaria's north-western region is the poorest in the European Union and the most heavily hit by the process of depopulation. But even regions close to the capital Sofia have been dealt a heavy blow by migration and demographic catastrophe, leaving dozens of villages literally with few or no people living there. There, the elderly people are forced to fend for themselves with little comfort or company in their twilight years. Doomsayers predict that at one point, thanks to the terminal decline of smaller villages and towns, roaming Roma will come to move into the empty houses there.
What does the headlong fall in Bulgaria's demography mean in economic terms?
The number of working Bulgarians is by about one third below the number of pensioners, who steadily exceed the number of babies born. The burden on the social security system is getting heavier, experts say, but fail to provide solutions to the problems that this will trigger. The state may force people to retire a few years later, but this will hardly make up for the shortage of young workers. The social security system, in its turn, will fail to take care of the increasing numbers of pensioners.
Can we expect a reversal with Bulgarian women returning to a pattern of at least one child per family?
May be, but only in those seven cities, primarily the capital Sofia and coastal Varna, which have seen growth over the last few years. Even there the economy is free falling and it is only a question of time for it to translate into a heavily stratified society.
Could Bulgarians come close to a feudal society, in which the boss and his closest aides are well off, bossing around the thousands of dependent and equal ordinary citizens?
Bulgarians are almost there.
But it is a rule that the individual knows how to tackle the future, while the state as a whole does not. Bulgarians are among the the quickest to find their feet and adapt to new environment after moving to live in a EU member state.
Sadly, at the expense of their national identity.