Theoretically, data produced by an EU government, with the possible exception of Greece, should be trusted. At the same time, the Bulgarians have this joke about the three levels of lies. There is a small lie, there is a big lie, and then there is statistics...
So, how correct is the data produced by the 2011 census?
There are many foreigners in the streets, cafés and restaurants in large cities in Bulgaria and many of them are not tourists. Expats living in almost every type of city neighbourhood are a common sign and so it is with many villages. The one-time excitement with which ordinary villagers referred to "that Englishman next door" has long gone, and expats in rural areas are now considered the norm rather than the exception. There are TV shows starring foreigners living in Bulgaria and in January 2011 mayor Dora Yankova of Smolyan announced that over 1,600 foreigners owned properties in the vicinity of the Rhodope town.
Expats look to be all over the place but if you check the results of the last census you will discover that only 36,723 foreigners live in Bulgaria, and only 8,444 of them are EU citizens.
Russians are the most populous at 11,991, according to the census. The Ukrainians come second (3,064) and the Turks third (2,741). UK citizens take fourth place (2,607), followed by Greeks (1,253). Americans and Irish numbered 524 and 78 respectively.
These figures, especially those for Englishspeaking foreigners, appear too low to be realistic.
Britons and Irish arrived in droves when the property market was booming and many of them bought a permanent or a second home in Bulgaria. At that time, the rough estimate of the number of Britons in the country was somewhere between 50,000 and 250,000. Most of them were small-time property investors, pensioners who had found a cheap home in the sun or spouses of Bulgarian emigrants who had returned to their home country lured by what at that time seemed like an irreversibly rising standard of living.
However, bust did follow boom – and many of these people left Bulgaria in recent years. The crisis struck and mortgage holders found themselves overstretched, the Bulgarian GDP plummeted and unemployment rates rose sharply. Many expats had a rude awakening to the dark side of the Bulgarian reality of corruption, lack of proper roads and thieves targeting their homes in the common belief that every foreigner is very rich and wouldn't mind having their goods stolen.
But still, the English-speaking foreigners you meet and hear of every day in Bulgaria seem more numerous than the numbers presented by the NSI, or National Statistical Institute (www.nsi.bg).
Why then are there so few foreigners in the official data?
The reasons are many and varied. In 2011, online questionnaires were introduced in Bulgaria and more than 40 percent of the population was counted on the Internet. However, for reasons that will probably be known only to the bureaucrats who devised the system, online counting was forbidden for both foreigners in Bulgaria and for Bulgarians living abroad.
The census questionnaire was translated into English and English-speaking enumerators were recruited, but only in areas with a significant foreign population.
Therefore many expats simply didn't take part in the census.
"In the months before the census the UK embassy met with the NSI to discuss how we could encourage UK citizens to participate," British Chargé d'Affaires Catherine Barber says. "We then provided detailed guidance on our website and social media pages, including information on how to request an Englishspeaking interviewer. We are very grateful for the cooperation we received from the NSI. I know that many UK citizens here found this information very useful and it encouraged them to take part in the census."
Barber thinks the results can be explained by the fact that the census was held in February, a cold month when Bulgaria does not look its best and many of the holiday-home owners are away: "The official count of UK citizens living in Bulgaria is at the lower end of our own estimates, but we think on the whole it is a reasonable estimate, given the timing of the census. Many British people living here spend some time each year back in the UK, especially during the winter months. There may also have been some who didn't fill in the census, either because of privacy concerns or language barriers." The census results are certainly puzzling, and not only in relation to foreigners in Bulgaria. For example, only 1,130 Jews live in Bulgaria, according to the census. Of these, 897 have Bulgarian as their "mother tongue."
Dr Alexander Oscar, chairman of Shalom Sofia Organisation, disagrees with the census results. "The census doesn't reflect the real number of Jews in Bulgaria. There are about 6,000 Jews in the country," he said. "Only 1,130 Jews identified themselves as such because of fear. This reflects the growing antisemitism in Bulgaria, a phenomenon which Shalom has repeatedly warned about."