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Bulgaria Hit by Population Slump

Date: 18.11.2006

By Mike Donkin
BBC News, Bulgaria

There is no morning rush to clock on these days at the Gotse Delchev electronics factory - one of the last bastions of Soviet-era industry in Bulgaria. Once it had 5,000 workers - now there are just 66.

There are little pockets of production, mostly older men bent over antique smelters, cutters and grinders. But around them lie derelict machines and puddles from the leaky roof.

Textile and tobacco plants have already shut down in this southern city and younger workers have left in their hundreds.

Emigration

Gotse Delchev is not alone. As their nation modernises to finally shake off socialism and join the EU in January, Bulgarians are being forced not just from outdated jobs but abroad to find work. Bulgaria's population is falling faster than anywhere else in Europe.

Stoyan Ryashev has worked at the electronics factory for 37 years. Both his sons have gone to Spain.

"It's a disaster. The state doesn't care about the factory or the workers," Stoyan says. "And young people can't stay because there's nothing for them. This is a sad place. You feel like you're in a ghost town.

"We were better off under socialism. We had security and a community here."

The mayor of Gotse Delchev, Vladimir Moskov, took me to the town hall roof and waved a hand towards the green mountains. It is, as he says, a beautiful setting.

"But we know our way of life alone won't keep people here," he says. "People want work, they need work.

"We have to make our local economy healthy again. We need more state funds and investment from abroad to give everyone better prospects and a better income."

Rural poverty

In a nation once famous for its agriculture the sense of abandonment is even stronger in the countryside.

The Kutela Valley, near the Greek border, used to be a place of plenty, with walnut trees, apples and plums on collective farms dutifully tended under socialism.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed the market for Bulgaria's produce went with it.

Now all those trees have gone and the fruits and vegetables people put on their table mostly come from abroad. And scattered across the landscape now are dozens of deserted or almost deserted villages.

Leshten had 40 households not so long ago - now there are just two. Weeds grow between the broken tiles on the rooftops and the odd dog sleeps below a broken cart.

The Kirichevs are in their 70s, but still live off the land in Leshten. They are sorry though to see their neighbours gone, fields wasted, and the old ways forgotten.

Arsenas Kirichev takes time off from sharpening his axe. "I don't find it a hardship living here - I'm 79 now and I've worked the fields all my life," he says.

"But young people are not interested in the hardships of farming. They'd just like to be behind a desk."

His wife Donka was feeding their few sheep in the cobbled yard. "I have plots of land handed down by my father which no-one wants to cultivate. Our children have gone to the cities like everybody else.

"We feel lost really. In the old days there were celebrations here - with everyone getting together. Now that's all gone. There is nothing."

Low birth rate

A survey says that if the trend continues Bulgaria will lose a third of its 7.5 million population in a few decades' time.

The exodus from Bulgaria is set to increase as EU membership makes emigration easier. But there is another factor behind the nation's alarming population statistics: Bulgarians are notnearly enough babies.

To keep the population stable a birth rate of 2.2 is needed. But it is presently 1.3. Just one child is now most couples' idea of an affordable family - even comparatively well-to-do professionals.
Vessela Raykova met me in Sofia's Theatre Park - proudly pushing baby Radoslav in a new buggy. She is a biologist and her husband a civil engineer.

Even for them starting a family was a big decision, she said, and Radoslav will not be getting a brother or a sister very soon.

"Of course we want to have more children. We'd love to have two more. But I can't see how this will happen in the next five years at least. Things like clothes for children are expensive, and we have had to borrow money.

"Actually among our friends we are almost the only couple to have a baby. No one else can afford to."

Depopulation is a serious practical worry for Bulgaria's government. If the young keep leaving, or not starting families, there will be no wage-earners to pay for pensions and social welfare.

Bulgaria's Minister for Work, Emilia Maslarova, says "it's important for young people to stay here and bring up their children, and we have a strategy to encourage them to do that.

"We are providing extra tax relief to persuade couples to have more children. We have a policy to help new mothers go back to work quickly and there will be more kindergartens. We know people want to stay in Bulgaria if they can."

Generation gap

Back from the factory Stoyan invited me to join him and his wife Maria for supper in their small Soviet-built apartment.

The food - sausages, cheese and salad, washed down by a heady grape brandy - was all home-produced to save money. On the dresser were pictures of their two sons, strong-looking young men who are both labourers in Barcelona.

The high spot of the evening was a call from Spain. Yes, the boys are both fine - and the boss there says there is still work to be had.

But Stoyan and Maria were sad at their family divide. Depopulation makes Gotse Delchev a lonely place, Stoyan said.

"I see the few people left in my factory walking around after work.

They have grim faces and empty souls. It's a shame we can't be together with our children. But I don't see how that can change."

Earlier I had left one of the last inhabitants of Leshten - a stooped Arsenas Kirichev out on the hillside with his now sharp axe, cutting wood as the sun set. His is the only fire to burn in his village these nights.

Bulgarians would like to keep their special national identity as they step towards a new future in Europe. To do that though its people must first feel secure enough to put their roots down here.

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