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Bulgaria: Population Declines Sharply As Young Seek Future Abroad

The population of Bulgaria has dropped by half a million people over the past decade, making it the European Union candidate country with the biggest population decline. Part of the problem is a steady decrease in birthrates and life expectancy. But there is also the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians -- most of them young people -- who are leaving the economically troubled country in search of a better life abroad.

Prague, 27 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Some 200,000 Bulgarians have left their country over the past 10 years. Another 750,000 say they would like to do the same.

In total, according to a survey conducted by the National Statistics Institute, as many as 15 percent of Bulgarians between the ages of 15 and 60 are looking to move abroad. Most of the potential immigrants are young and well-educated.

Results from Bulgaria's 2001 census released at the same time as the statistics institute's survey put the country's population at just under 8 million (7,932,000), a drop of nearly half a million from the previous census, conducted in 1992. Local media, however, cite a nongovernmental organization, the Association on Infertility, that says that number is actually closer to 7.5 million.

The Economist Intelligence Unit gives even lower population figures. The London-based research group estimates Bulgaria's population in 2001 at 7.7 million and says by 2006 it will fall to some 7.3 million.

The desire to move to other countries is nothing new in postcommunist Bulgaria. Many were quick to pack their bags after the fall of the single-party regime in 1989 left Bulgarians free to travel abroad for the first time in four decades. Many in the first wave of immigration left the country for political reasons. This included Bulgaria's ethnic Turks, who had been forced by the communist regime to assimilate.

Now, however, most people are leaving for economic reasons. Just 1 percent of Bulgarians describe their living standards as "very good"; more than a third of Bulgarians say they live in poverty.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Yordan Kalchev of the National Statistics Institute said the country's economic difficulties have forced many Bulgarians to look for better options abroad. "[Those people who leave] are looking for greater stability, for better job opportunities, for higher pay. Of course, compared to Bulgaria, in all those respects, the EU and the United States, Canada, and Australia have better things to offer," Kalchev said.

Eurostat, the statistics institute of the European Union, recently said that Bulgaria's living standards lag behind those of all other EU candidate states. The average monthly wage in Bulgaria last year was just over $110; the official unemployment rate was nearly 18 percent.

Sociologist Mira Yanova, director of the MBMD independent polling institute, said Bulgaria's difficult economic situation has been further aggravated by the near collapse of the health system and a serious deterioration in education. "We are currently witnessing another process that further undermines the sense of stability: namely, a collapse in such important social spheres as the health system and education. A reform of the health system launched by [the previous center-right government of former Prime Minister Ivan] Kostov seems to be going nowhere, and that has a very unfavorable impact on society," Yanova said.

Faced with such financial and social uncertainty, Bulgarian families are having fewer children. The two-child family -- once the norm in Bulgaria -- is steadily being replaced by families with only one child, or no children at all.

Sociologist Yanova said this demographic trend has been developing since long before the 1989 fall of the communist regime. "Bulgaria had negative population growth [and] negative demographic trends long before 1989. [In this respect,] Bulgaria, I would say, is an exception in Europe, because [in Bulgaria] there was no postwar baby boom like in other European nations. After World War II, Bulgarian society was under the shock of industrialization -- forced industrialization -- and the fertility rate fell sharply to 1.6 [to] 1.7 [children] per family," Yanova said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Bulgaria's communist rulers tried to create a system of incentives to stimulate population growth, but the highly politicized attempt ended in failure.

Yanova said all postcommunist governments had too many pressing economic problems on their hands -- and were ultimately too short-lived -- to devote much attention to demographic strategy.

Now, the continued perception that little is being done to solve Bulgaria's social and economic woes is contributing to further drops in the birthrate and a growing desire among many Bulgarians to move abroad.

Kalchev of the National Statistics Institute said such issues must be addressed before it is too late. "We have to look for those reasons beyond the economic hardships the country is now going through. The all-too-long transition period [to a market economy] seems to have given rise to a kind of negativism, a pessimism in young people. They seem to have lost hope in the future development of the democratic potential of the nation, in what the future has to offer," Kalchev said.

But despite the alarming results of both the 2001 census and the statistics institute's survey, many Bulgarians appear resigned to the country's negative demographic trends. Yanova said: "I would say that Bulgarian society in recent years has grown inured to bad news. That's why [the census results] did not create any inordinate stir, either in the media or in society. People have long been aware that the young see no future in Bulgaria. They realize that the financial situation, and the economy in general, are in a rather dire state, and that is why neither the people, nor state institutions, nor the media seemed to pay enough attention."

But some sociologists say the situation is not so bleak.

Despite expectations to the contrary, last year's lifting of visa restrictions on travel to the so-called Schengen states did not see a marked increase in immigration. Given the right to travel abroad freely any time, Bulgarians looked West more for temporary employment or educational opportunities than as a place to settle.

According to the National Statistics Institute survey, many of the Bulgarians planning to move abroad temporarily say they are looking for better professional and educational opportunities for themselves and their children. Kalchev said such people may ultimately prove a boon to Bulgaria when they return home with newly acquired professional skills.

Yanova said she expects the demographic situation to stabilize once Bulgaria achieves its aim of joining the EU -- something that the EU says is likely to happen no earlier than 2008. In the meantime, she said, a number of qualified workers from former Soviet republics seem to be eyeing job opportunities in Bulgaria and may help population figures eventually rise.

And according to unofficial figures, some 15,000 members of the Bulgarian communities that settled abroad in the past -- mostly in Ukraine and Moldova -- have re-settled in Bulgaria since 1991.

(Svetoslav Nikolov of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service contributed to this report.)