by Anthony Georgieff

And why no one wants to return

You don't have to be in the construction business, or in any other sort of business for that matter, to see that Bulgaria over the past decade has increasingly experienced workforce shortages in anything from service personnel in the restaurants and the hotels to qualified doctors, nurses, teachers, journalists, web designers and software engineers. A trip through the Bulgarian countryside will reveal some unpleasant sites. Many villages that once thrived have been deserted, with their population in many cases numbering just a couple of elderly folk. Huge installations that the Communists built to facilitate farming, industry and defence lie in ruins. According to the National Statistical Institute, as many as 591 villages in Bulgaria are either peopleless or have a population of fewer than nine. Seventy-two of those have just one inhabitant. Typically, this kind of depopulation takes place in poor regions such as the Northwest, the Strandzha and the Rhodope. Yet, this is only indicative. There are four totally abandoned villages in the vicinity of Sofia, Bulgaria's capital.

The situation in the Bulgarian towns is not much better. Sofia, Varna, Plovdiv and Burgas aside, most Bulgarian towns have experienced increasing emigration. In the 1990s it was mainly to the bigger towns and, illegally, to the West. As visas dropped and international travel became easier, the emigration stream continued. Young people wanted to study. Unqualified workers wanted to get better pay. Once in London, few were willing to return to Lovech.

The total population of Bulgaria is down from about 9 million in the 1980s to about 7 in the 2010s. Census data like that should always be taken with a pinch of salt, however. Usually, it fails to take into account Bulgarians who have failed to deregister from their usual homes or those who are on long-term but not yet permanent jobs abroad. It will be safe to assume that in 2019 there are about 5 millions Bulgarians inside Bulgaria.

The severe decline of the Bulgarian population has been the subject of many researches, studies and speculations, and usually gets put to political use by whoever is in power. The extreme nationalist parties in the current ruling coalition regularly point out that Bulgaria's Gypsies, who usually have higher birth rates than the ethnic Bulgarians, will "soon" become this country's main ethnic group. The term used, offensively, is "Gypsy-isation" of Bulgaria.

As usually happens in these climes, the people who have the power put the cart before the horse. The current Bulgarian rulers are no exception. Instead of analysing the origins of what the hacks ordinarily bill a "demographic crisis," they settle for the easiest and most innocuous explanation: Bulgarians leave because abroad they get higher salaries.

This is only a part of the story. While it is true that the working wages in Bulgaria remain the EU's lowest, Bulgaria is no longer the dirt-cheap destination it once was. Prices in the supermarkets vie, in many cases quite successfully, with Western prices. Correspondingly, the wages people make, especially in the construction business, near Western rates.

Yet, Bulgarians, including construction workers, would rather leave.

Claiming that they do not make enough money in Bulgaria is the easy way out for the Bulgarian politicians. Money is important, but it is not everything, not even in Bulgaria. The overwhelming majority of Bulgarians, especially the better educated ones, will not even think of returning for a variety of reasons that can be summed up in a sentence: in Bulgaria they see no hope and no future for themselves and their families.

Having spent some time in the UK, Germany or even in southern Europe they have become used to the many safety nets Western societies have created since the Second World War. They know that their kids will be given proper education. They know that the governments in their adopted countries will not lie to them as much as the Bulgarian one does. They know that should they fall sick and go to hospital they will be treated with dignity – and will not have to buy their own bandages and syringes. They realise that their careers are contingent solely on their performance rather than on their employers' nebulous networks of friends and foes. The justice systems are reliable and predictable, something Bulgaria has failed to ensure for many years. If they close their eyes and think of Bulgaria they usually will not see the 3,000 leva (about 1,500 euros) they will make if they go work on a construction site. They will think that their bosses will cheat them, that the moment they go on the streets they will have to deal with corrupt cops, that they will be bullied by surly civil servants, that the newspapers they will buy will feed them with propaganda and that if they seek justice in the courts they will have to pay more bribes.

Unless Bulgaria puts its own house in order the population decline will likely continue. But putting the house in order does not mean increasing the salaries alone. It includes a complex and long-term effort to make Bulgarians regain at least some confidence that they live their lives in the 21st century, not in 19th when Bulgarian beauties dressed in village clothes carried water in clay pots while Bulgarian boys with fur hats tended the sheep. No government since the 2000s has tried to do that. Boyko Borisov's highways will not, either.


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