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The Depopulation of Bulgaria and its Implications


Depopulation is a serious issue in Eastern European countries. A major contributor to this trend is labor migration to the West, as workers leave their home countries in search of better opportunities. Bulgaria is arguably the hardest-hit country in the region in terms of depopulation. By having a significant out-migration, with a low birth rate, Bulgaria became the fastest-shrinking population in the world. In the last 30 years, Bulgaria lost more than 2 million people, almost one-third of its working population.

After the fall of communism in 1989, Bulgaria underwent a significant transformation in its economic policies, which included liberalizing its trade regime and transitioning to a free market economy. The country's new leaders declared their interest in joining the European Community, primarily for economic reasons. However, the process of transforming the economy was not without its challenges. Bulgaria faced skyrocketing unemployment rates and record-breaking inflation. In 1991, the inflation of the country reached 333%, and in 1997 it hit the rate of 1,061%. In this situation, hundreds of thousands of people left the country to find jobs. Most of these people moved to Greece and Italy, as their economic situation didn’t let them settle in more developed parts of Europe.

Then, by the early 2000s, Bulgaria had made significant progress in stabilizing its economy, thanks to European reforms. The country experienced steady economic growth, with an average annual rate of 6%. The country's accession to the European Union in 2007 was viewed as a historic achievement. However, even before Bulgaria's entry into the EU, many member states placed periodic restrictions on the free movement of Bulgarian workers. It was evident that a considerable number of Bulgarian workers would seek employment in Western European countries, where the challenges of the 2004 enlargement were still visible. Despite that, restrictions didn’t stop Bulgarian workers and they emigrated under tourist visas to economically stronger countries in Europe, namely Germany, France, Spain, and Italy. By 2015, the number of Bulgarians working abroad surpassed the number of Bulgarians working in Bulgaria. Even though the number of outgoing workers is decreasing gradually as Bulgaria is ‘catching’ the European level, around 20.000 workers still leave the country each year.

The main reason for out-migration from Bulgaria has always been economic. While in the 90s Bulgarians moved to Europe to find jobs and survive high inflation, now they focus on gaining a higher socio-economic status compared to their homeland. In a recent survey, 96% of participants declared that they moved to the EU countries to have higher salaries and to save money for the future. Currently, the dream of better life prospects drives people to EU countries, which correlates with the fact that Bulgaria is the poorest member of the EU.

In a recent survey, 96% of participants declared that they moved to the EU countries to have higher salaries and to save money for the future. Currently, the dream of better life prospects drives people to EU countries, which correlates with the fact that Bulgaria is the poorest member of the EU.

The signs of a labor shortage are getting more and more visible in Bulgaria. At the end of 2019, only 66 new workers joined the labor market for every 100 workers left. The dispositions of the migrants are deepening the problems of depopulation as well. Most of the workers leaving the country are around the age of having a child. As a result, the fertility rate in Bulgaria is decreasing further. The projections estimate that the Bulgarian labor market will have tougher times as depopulation will not stop in a near future. As a result, Bulgarian employers are looking for employees from ex-Soviet countries, especially from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Arguably, there can be some beneficial sides to this labor shortage. Due to the strained labor market, Bulgaria had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the EU in 2019, only 4%, while the EU average was 7%. Bulgaria’s labor market is relatively successful in the post-COVID period as well. In the summer of 2021, the labor market recovered and the employment rate was the same as in 2019. While hourly labor costs increased by 3.4% in the EU, the rate of increase was 16% in Bulgaria, in the 3rd quarter of 2022. While Bulgarian workers benefit from the wage increases, they still prefer to leave the country for better chances. As a fact, Bulgaria has the cheapest labor in the EU. 

Unfortunately, there are no arguable benefits of depopulation in social life. Around 22% of the Bulgarian population is older than 65. By 2050, it is estimated that 30% of Bulgarian adults will be older than 65. The natural death rate of Bulgaria is already 21.7%, the highest in the EU. The aging population means a serious shortage in the labor market, as well as an enormous weight on the health system. According to the National Statistics Institute of Bulgaria, more than 1200 villages have a population lower than 50, and most of these people are elder adults who require care. Meanwhile, local hospitals and schools are closed because there are not enough citizens to sustain their services. This creates further problems for public services for people in rural areas.

While the aging population is a general trend in the country, the migration levels are not the same throughout the country. Rural citizens and ethnic minorities (Turks and Roma) are more prone to migrate. Southwest Region, where the capital city Sofia belongs, lost only 1% of its population in the last 10 years. Northwest Region lost 16% of its population in the same time frame, owing to being the poorest and most rural region of Bulgaria.

After the EU reforms, the Bulgarian economy transformed itself into a part of the global economy and benefited from this process. The depopulation of the country jeopardize these achievements of the last 20 years. At the time of the writing, Bulgaria is getting prepared for its 5th election in the last 2 years. Because of fruitless political discussions in the political area, Bulgaria was not able to control its depopulation and ended up in a dangerous position. However, it is questionable when Bulgaria will be able to take this problem into its political agenda to activate serious measures. It is possible that the ongoing political problems can affect the economy further and create new emigration waves in the next years.

Kadir Yozkalach studied History at Istanbul University in Turkey and is currently pursuing graduate studies in International Relations at University of Wroclaw in Poland. 


Bulgaria is a Champion in Wage Growth in Europe - 16% - Novinite.com - Sofia News Agency. (2023, January 5). https://www.novinite.com/articles/218286/Bulgaria+is+a+Champion+in+Wage+Growth+in+Europe+-+16

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?????????, ?. (2023, January 7). ?? ?????? ???????, ???????, ?? ?? ???????: ??? ? ???????? ???????? ?? ?????? ? ???????. Dnevnik. https://www.dnevnik.bg/bulgaria/2023/01/07/4435624_na_sredna_vuzrast_semeini_za_da_oceleiat_koi_v/


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