In shrinking Bulgaria, where are the people?

In shrinking Bulgaria, where are the people?

The New York Times

LUKY, Bulgaria — This socialist mining town of the future was so new when it was founded in 1959 that it had a new, modern maternity ward and no cemetery.

Today the population is 4,000, down from 10,000 in 1990. Only two of the five lead-zinc mines still operate, unable to compete on the world market. Eight of the municipality’s nine schools have closed because there are so few children. The maternity ward has long since shut its doors.

“We have almost used up the cemetery we have now,” said Todor Todorov, mayor of this town in the Rhodope Mountains of southern Bulgaria. “We’re in a hurry to find terrain for a new one.”

Scrappy but charming, Luky is not neglected. The streets are tidy and organized and many of the public buildings are freshly painted. Only the locals can see what is missing: the people who once filled the streets.

“The town is literally dying,” said Maria Ivanova, 49, who works at a café on the pine-shaded main street. “There is no work and all the young people have left.”

Luky is one of the more extreme cases of depopulation in Bulgaria, where the overall population decline is considered to be one of the most severe in the world. The 20 main cities all have lost population since 1989, except for Sofia, the capital.

According to a projection by the Population Reference Bureau, a nongovernmental organization in Washington, Bulgaria’s population will decline by 34 percent from 2005 to 2050, from 7.7 million to 5 million.

The bureau projected that the only country likely to lose more of its people in that span was Swaziland, where 38 percent of the population has HIV.

Although declining population is affecting many other countries in Europe, the problem in Bulgaria “is made more complicated by the low standard of living,” said Emilia Voynova, the head of the demographic policy office at the Labor and Social Policy Ministry in Sofia. Voynova is drafting a national strategy to improve living standards so that Bulgarians have more children, emigrate less and live longer.

The difficulties Bulgaria is facing can be seen in comparison with Italy, which also has population concerns – there are only four workers for every pensioner in Italy. In Bulgaria, there are just 1.5 workers for every 2 pensioners and the ratio is getting worse. “There is no way for the social security system to be self-sustaining,” Voynova said.

Yordan Kaltchev, head of population statistics at the Bulgarian national statistical institute, said the population decline began during the Communist era and accelerated when the old system ended in 1989 and the economy collapsed. “Young people felt insecure about their future and this is reflected in their reproductive behavior,” he said.

The fertility rate – the average number of children per woman – is now 1.3 in Bulgaria, the same as in Germany. The rate needed to keep the population level is 2.2.

Kaltchev estimated that 800,000 Bulgarians emigrated from 1989 to 2004, or about 10 percent of the population. The fact that many who left were young adults compounded the decline.

Bulgaria’s demographic dilemma is evident in the 144 villages that now have populations of 0. An additional 337 villages have 10 or fewer residents.

The village of Balkan Mahala, about 12 kilometers, or seven miles, from Luky, has an official population of eight. But its residents, the members of two families, said the real number was five because one family moved away last year. There are about 30 houses scattered across the hills, with stone roofs and spacious yards, most of them abandoned.

Nikola Stoikov was in the fourth grade when his school closed in 1964. He still lives in the village with his parents, who each have their own house. The family has land, he said, “but there’s no one to take care of it.”

“The state can’t do anything to help us,” Stoikov added during a break from feeding his pigs. “There are only old people left.”

His father, Vasil Stoikov, 84, was reclining on the side of a steep hill eating a lunch of yogurt, salad and pork, all of which he produced himself. All his clothing is homemade: thick brown homespun wool pants, knit wool socks and a brown knit vest.

“It’s become very boring here,” he said, gazing across the panorama of blue mountains and green hills. In the pristine landscape unraveling to the horizon, only a few man-made structures were visible. “It’s better not to exist. The old people die and the young people have left.”

Far to the west, in Dupnitsa, 70 kilometers south of Sofia, the population has plummeted to 44,000, from 57,000 in the late 1980s. In the Communist period, about 70 percent of the inhabitants worked in large manufacturing plants, most of which are now closed, just as Luky depended on its mines.

Dupnitsa offers passing motorists a post-apocalyptic vision of severe industrial decay. Enormous rusting factories and warehouses with rows of broken windows form the view for most of the length of the international highway that passes through the city. In the center of town, filled with crumbling buildings, bland concrete official edifices and modern flashy cafés, two retirees were sitting on a park bench.

“We were just talking about how it used to be that you couldn’t pass through here because there were so many people on a summer evening,” said Ivanka Hristova. “Now you don’t see a single person.”

Her husband, Georgi, 60, was the production manager in a machine-building factory that once employed 1,400 people. It is now closed.

“It’s sad and depressing that my children have to go abroad to find work,” he said. “Someone who was educated as a teacher has to go to Spain and become a cleaner or builder to live better.”

Across the square was a sight increasingly common in Bulgaria: two young mothers pushing baby carriages. But they said they did not plan to increase the size of their families.

“This is my only and last child because we don’t have enough money,” Daniela Deneva, 25, said of her 9- month-old daughter, Sasha.

Her husband is a conductor for the state railroad, earning 425 levs, or $272, a month. She receives an additional 160 levs in state maternity support.

Only if living standards improved, Deneva said, would young people like her have more children.



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