Bulgaria's Demographic Meltdown Not Addressed before Elections
By Gürkan Özturan
EU Policy Officer
Competition is coming to an end in Bulgaria’s early elections which is to be held on May 12. Former government and the prime minister had resigned office in February upon massive wave of protest across the country. Candidates have been promoting their promises to public, mainly addressing the poverty problem which was the major driving force behind protests. Although economic restructuring and development are still top priorities of all parties, hardly any politician refers to a widespread problem of demographic melt-down and population movement in the Balkan country.
Since 2007 when Bulgaria became full members of the European Union, the country has been struggling with economic downturn and crisis, while a demographic problem gradually encloses future of the land. Hundreds of thousands of young Bulgarians that share the ‘European Dream’ have moved to other EU member states after acquiring freedom in movement of persons. By doing so, they have been financially supporting their remaining family members back in Bulgaria. In order to prevent drain of young generation that has rather good education to other countries, there have been started rapid transformation and development projects. An immediate consequence of these policies has been the reshaping of the demographic map. While these major changes are occurring about the Bulgarian population, political parties do not seem to have any evaluation of the issue.
Bulgaria has been losing population since the borders were first opened to let ethnic Turks leave the country in 1989. This loss has been gaining momentum each year until now, although there have been a few years when the momentum seemed to grow slower during EU negotiation process. However, after 2007 Bulgaria started losing population even more rapidly, even though the development level and life standards have improved dramatically in the last few years. National Statistics Institute reveals the numbers showing that one in every five Bulgarians are now above the age of 65 and the average population keeps getting older each day. While emigration is one of the major causes of ageing of the Bulgarian population, nationally there are many cities that are much above ageing medium of the country.
The fact that yearly death rates continue to get higher while birth rates growing much lower compared to earlier years, brings the demographical changes issue to a more dramatic level. Bulgaria after having gone through a cultural restructuring in the past two decades, economic development level of the cities affect the familial relations and domestic life. As life gets tougher, in the recent years, young couples tend to await a more stable economic situation to get married. And only a small part of those that have marriage plans wish to have a baby right away. Among the couples that have economically secured themselves, the trend shows that they do not wish to sacrifice their personal life to take care of a baby.
As a consequence of unsustainable development policies that have been carried out in the past years, some parts of the country have been subject to influx of internal migration, creating ghost towns and villages where people left. Those towns and villages await a hard time in the future as a result of the young population’s departure for job opportunities, life standards or simply individual freedom. The future does not seem to hold a very bright reflection for these areas of the country that risks loss of local and regional culture, tastes, delicacies and products. The smaller towns and villages that make up the backbone of the multiplex and diverse Bulgarian culture seem to have been classified together with the older generation and have been put on shelf, in face of national economic restructuring and development, which involves construction of mega-cities and regeneration of urban spaces in the western model.
Except for the far right ATAKA party that embraces the traditional local civilization without opening up to multiculturalism, there is not really any political movement or party that opposes the current Bulgarian government policies. The opposition parties, which are expected to oppose to GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria) government’s policies of rapid and unplanned development model, do not seem to pose any other alternative or openly criticize them, thus leaving the electorate without that many options really. In this unprecedented atmosphere, even when there is two weeks till the election, a quarter of the electorate had not decided which party to vote, blaming all parties to be the same; making it very hard to predict what the outcome will be on May 13.
General populace have embraced the concept of center right movements and support the idea that Bulgaria should stand up for a western style development plan, and that state should gradually relieve control of businesses starting with monopolies, support small and medium enterprises that would establish the backbone of Bulgarian economic future. On the other hand, Meglena Kuneva, former EU Minister (2001-2005), former negotiator (2005-2007) and former EU Commissioner (2007-2009) strongly criticizes Bulgarian politicians that confuse national politics with their personal gains and so has prepared her election program based on the wrong-doings of GERB government. Her “Citizens for Europe Movement” (CEM) also does not refer to local and regional cultural politics and basically focuses on Bulgarian economic and structural development in the general sense.
It is possible to see the situation statistically after Bulgaria experienced a term of center-right government as part of the EU. When the general politics is basically about economics and there being a lack of individualistic, cultural and social policies will bring a hard time for future generations in Bulgaria. Although the national statistical institute foresees a sudden change in the population growth rates following the year 2015, it seems like the big cities growing thanks to migration and thus contributing to national growth rate will disappoint the ethnic Bulgarians that only see these developments in few cities.
Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Burgas, Ruse, Stara Zagora and Pleven have become the home of one third of Bulgarian population in the last few years. These cities serve as the showcase of Bulgarian economic development and rely on international migratory flows for future expansion, while at the same time becoming the concentration areas for the political opposition movements. Among these cities, the former governing party GERB only managed to convince majority of population in Sofia. While at the same time, far right tendencies and support for ATAKA has been much higher than national average in the remaining five cities. Perhaps not embracing every far right policy but having deeply nationalistic feelings, parts of regional population believe that the minorities are responsible for this demographic change in the country, thus vote for the ATAKA alliance. Yet, ATAKA deputies, MEPs and candidates do not refer much to development and restructuring policies as causes of the population movements, and leave the electorate unanswered after chauvinist and populist statements.
No matter what, Volen Siderov –the leader of ATAKA- seems like he will employ his already winning tactics, that is revealing the corruption and wrong-doings of his opponents in political life, as populism and radical politics make great use in times of economic crisis and political unrest. If he continues with this, although ATAKA does not seem to address current problems or suggest any solutions, they may end up stealing more votes from other parties as they used to in the past elections. In such a scenario, Kuneva’s statement in the name of CEM “we will never be part of a coalition with the parties that we categorically ruled out before, they killed my dream and dream of most of Bulgaria” might benefit the far right party ATAKA as it is a Europe-wide trend nowadays for minor populist/far right parties, ‘to acquire seats in the cabinet!’
As long as other parties start producing alternative policies for sustainability of regional and local cultures, European integration and development plans will continue to hurt feelings of societies. In such an atmosphere, the left alternative posing weakly only serves the purposes of center right movements that are already advantageous in the election race, and might even benefit the far right movement by opening up the path to cabinet. Looking at this scenario, seeing no proper alternative development and integration policies from the left parties, seems to prove the understanding that it is the European People’s Party that has always and still is the engine behind European expansion, transformation and integration