Welcome to Sofia, the Bulgarian City-State! (440 B.C.)
A very recent decision of the Bulgarian government to create a gigantic new industrial zone near the capital Sofia demonstrates that the Cabinet is completely oblivious of the country's monstrously pressing development and economic issues.
The Borisov cabinet decided last week to approve the establishment of a brand new industrial zone at the town of Bozhurishte on 190 hectares of land currently owned by the Defense Ministry. Even though this became apparent only a few days later, the Cabinet even started trying to lure Chinese investors in order to turn the new industrial park into a “Bulgarian-Chinese project”.
The only problem with this otherwise marvelous initiative is that Bozhurishte is just 3 km from the wider Sofia City District. That is, the new industrial zone will be one more nail in the already well sealed coffin of what should have been balanced regional development in Bulgaria.
This is about much more than just complaining of the traffic jams and the overcrowded sidewalks in the capital, the terrible quality of the air, or the fact that you would experience higher radiation levels in downtown Sofia than if you are sitting down reading a newspaper between reactors 5 and 6 of Kozloduy, the nuclear power plant which somehow became a notorious scarecrow around Europe.
Thus, with its recent decision about the Bozhurishte industrial zone, the relatively new Bulgarian government demonstrates that it is going to follow the policies of its predecessors of concentrating everything in the capital Sofia – or around it, in the best case scenario. The net result is that today's Sofia is increasingly becoming a city-state, a country within the country. Without ever having been anybody's colony, Bulgaria looks more and more like a post-colonial state with one major city and a vastly dilapidated hinterland.
Unless this trend is effectively reversed any time soon, it will exacerbate the demographic meltdown of the Bulgarian nation, it will keep Bulgaria economically underdeveloped and with a low quality of life pretty much everywhere, including in the capital, and it will even have grave political consequences that might open a can of worms.
Currently, Sofia has at least 2.5 million people out of fewer than 7.5 million living in Bulgaria, and that balance is continuing to shift in its “favor.”
The disregard of the state administration of this imbalance is demonstrated by the data it provides. If you ask the state statistics offices, they will tell you Sofia's population is only 1.2 million – as it was in the late 1980s. This is simply because most of the “new” Sofia residents are not registered in the city. But if you take a minute to look at the public transport figures, you will find that at least 1.5 million people ride the city buses, trams, trolley buses, and metro daily, and this does not include the other million or so trying to ride their cars in the congested capital.
A mass exodus of Bulgarians from the provinces to the capital has been going on for at least a decade. The map is from the National Statistical Institute based on 2003 data. However, the NSI only counts migrants who changed their registration to acquire a permanent address in Sofia. (Sofia is in the South-West Region.)
Many have compared the development model of today's Bulgaria with that of Greece – one or two major cities (i.e. Sofia = Athens, Varna = Thessaloniki), and a hinterland dominated by tourism and agriculture. This comparison is not very correct, though. Because today's Sofia is more like Athens in 400 BC, a polis dominating an agricultural region. At the same time what once was the heartland of the Bulgarian civilization – the northern/northeastern and the southern-central parts of the country – is now rapidly becoming a backwater hinterland with lots of beautiful nature and very little hope for decent living conditions.
Whenever I have foreign guests visiting, they sure like Sofia. But they are usually fascinated by the rest of the country in terms of the nature, clean air, good food, the spirit of local traditions – certainly not by the infrastructure and the local economy.
Many claim that the major reason for the mass exodus of Bulgarians from around the country to Sofia has to do with the lack of economic opportunities. This argument certainly holds ground but economic opportunities can be created with some sensible initiatives and a rational development strategy. Yet, I bet the Bulgarian government did not even consider setting up the new industrial zone somewhere else in the country. And Bulgaria is a society where local entrepreneurs usually go where the state goes and leave the spots from which the state backs out.
The real problem in Bulgaria is in the realm of perceptions and myths. For some reason, living in the capital is considered extremely prestigious, while living in some provincial spot is considered terrifying, especially by the younger generation. (That is why you can often hear Bulgarians express their astonishment when they learn that some Westerner bought a house in some God-forsaken village.) And while this can be easily understood, and makes sense in many ways from the point of view of a young person who enjoys discos, movie theaters, and shiny shopping malls, the migration momentum that these views create turns both the capital city and the rest of the country into places with perpetually mediocre living conditions.
Sofia could indeed be an attractive place in many ways. Plus, Bulgarians with their complexes stemming from their status as a small nation have always loved big things – so a city of three million people sounds appealing to many. I keep thinking there is some very sound ground behind the American model where the majority of the population lives in detached houses in green suburbs and smaller towns around the cities rather than cram into the inner city. Yet, Bulgarians do not appear to value cleaner air and water, more peaceful and healthy lifestyles, and a closer contact with nature.
Why are the consequences of this fundamentally flawed model of development (which no Bulgarian government or civil organization has tried to reverse) so dangerous?
First, the Bulgarian capital keeps sucking out human resources and wealth from the rest of the country but its demographic lifestyle is mainly dominated by the one-child model turning into a huge population black hole at a time when Bulgaria's population is melting away.
Second, the city of Sofia has a limited capacity for providing social services and infrastructure; this capacity becomes even more limited with the Bulgarian modes of (dis)organization so that getting more people automatically means worsening living conditions. At the same time, with fewer people in the provinces, the government is planning to shut down hospitals, schools, universities, administration units; private firms are closing down movie theaters even in what used to be considered larger cities around the country.
Third, basing your entire economy on one single city means lots and lots of missed opportunities for development, wealth, and economic growth. This is not even to mention concepts such as social solidarity, or the lack thereof, where a certain group in one spot of the country becomes extremely wealthy while the rest are doomed to poverty.
Fourth, the Bulgarian countryside is increasingly becoming the habitat of elderly people and ethnic minorities. Politically, this means perpetuating and exacerbating the model of representation in which the city-state Sofia will usually vote for (supposedly) a “modern, European-oriented or reform-minded party” – such as the Union of Democratic Forces in the 1990s, the National Movement for Stability and Prosperity in 2001, or the GERB party in 2009. At the same time, the hinterland will increasingly be dominated by Socialist Party and the ethnic Turkish party DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedoms) – more by the latter, as the former's electoral base is literally dying off; or by populist far-right formations such as the Ataka party, which became known as the party of “small-town Bulgaria.” I don't even want to get into all the terrible scenarios you can end up once you have regional economic and demographic imbalances translate into political and even ethnic division lines.
The momentum for reversing this trend and preventing the negative consequences from materializing can come from two factors. One is certainly the central government, which has two options.
First, under the existing centralized government model it can exert its efforts to spread economic activity around the country seeking to unload excess population from Sofia and to generate growth everywhere through a rational development strategy.
For the time being, there are no signs of this happening. Bulgaria's Regional Development Minister Rosen Plevneliev recently praised the importance of the Trakiya Highway (which should become the first big highway to be completed in Bulgaria by 2012 – yay!) because it would connect five of Bulgaria's six largest cities – i.e. Sofia, Plovdiv, Stara Zagora, Burgas, and Varna. This will certainly be the case as instead of diversifying the transport routes by building the highway further to the south in order to breathe some life in the respective regions, the Bulgarian authorities chose to create just one single transportation axis, an axis that will help the capital city-state suck out people and resources even faster and even from the other larger cities. That probably makes the Trakiya Highway a good example of “a highway to hell.”
The route of the Trakiya Highway is a typical example of the lack of concern of all Bulgarian governments in past 20 years (and beyond) for the balanced development of the country. Instead of going through the more convenient southeastern regions threatened by depopulation, the highway was set to go through more developed terrains (near Stara Zagora, Sliven - the green line) doubling existing roads. What is more, its extention from Burgas to Varna (in brown) will strip off any traffic from Northern Bulgaria.
A second option for the Bulgarian government would be to set up proper regions and grant them certain powers so that the local elites could generate initiatives for balanced regional development. As appealing as this may sound, this model does not seem very applicable to Bulgaria given the “condition” of the local “elites” where greater regional autonomy can turn parts of the country into de facto feudal estates overtly dominated by mafia groups.
The other major source of balanced development momentum could be the Bulgarian civil society, at least theoretically. Yet, given the fact that most of Bulgaria's civil organizations are centered in Sofia and a couple of other larger cities, while the hinterland has naturally been stripped off of those as well, this seems a highly remote possibility (even though it should not be 100% dismissed).
All in all, Bulgaria does not seem to have very bright days ahead of it if it does not find a way to spread economic activities, infrastructure and social life more evenly around the country. Given the right strategy and proper transport infrastructure utilizing the short distances and natural conditions, Bulgaria could turn into a nice European green suburb instead of a crowded, dirty city-state reigning over a deserted wilderness.
Over the last few years Sofia has attracted some 80% of the total foreign investments in Bulgaria – a fact that was emphasized back in 2009 by former Sofia Mayor Boyko Borisov and current Prime Minister as a positive example of local government. Yet, will foreign investors be so eager to come to Sofia in 10-15 years when it is no longer an emerging market, but a chronically malfunctioning city-state surrounded by a vastly empty hinterland inhabited here and there with elderly men and women, and growing ethnic enclaves of young, unemployed and uneducated minorities?
I don't think so.
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