We cross northern Bulgaria from east to west, on the last 100 kilometers more on gravel than on asphalt. Everywhere – at the houses, bus stops, lampposts or trees – we see slips of paper, with the pictures and names of deceased people. The reason is an Orthodox custom, with which the death of a loved one is publicly indicated. Meanwhile, the streets are almost deserted. Most of the buildings have crumbled; many are also abandoned. The scenery seems almost surreal.
Northwestern Bulgaria in particular is characterized by profound demographic change. Almost nowhere else in the world is the population shrinking as fast as in this region. While almost 9 million people lived here in 1989, today there are fewer than 7 million. According to UN estimates, by 2050 there will be just under 5 million, almost half.
The northwest is the poorest region in the poorest country in the European Union. People here, especially the younger generations, have hardly any prospects for the future. Those who can, move away. What is left behind are mainly the elderly. That is why the mortality rate here is comparable to that in war zones.
This form of demographic change does not affect Bulgaria alone. Since the collapse of state socialism and the change of system, an estimated 12 to 15 million Eastern Europeans have left their homeland, most of them for countries in the West. Young and well-educated people in particular are leaving; for example, it is estimated that one in six doctors trained in Bosnia-Herzegovina works in Germany.
This change, which is almost unparalleled in a global comparison, leaves deep wounds in the home countries of those who have left, which can hardly offer their inhabitants any prospects. There are hardly any long-term strategies to solve this development, which is massively changing the countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
Text: Tobias Schwessinger
Photos: Christian Faludi