Handling the demographic crisis – the key to the “End of the Transition”

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In each country, the main driver of social, economic and political development is its population, so a demographic crisis is capable of destroying any potential for a better future for a society. Unfortunately, we have witnessed such a crisis in Bulgaria for decades and its effects are felt ever-more with each passing year.

Bulgaria’s population is decreasing with one of the fastest and most threatening rates in Europe, according to UN. In 1989 it was nearly 9 million, and at the beginning of 2018 – just over 7 million. If this trend continues, the population of Bulgaria in 2050 is expected to be about 5.5 million and in 2100 – about 3.8 million, according to UN data. The picture becomes even worse if we take into account the fact that many of these 7 million do not actually live in Bulgaria but instead work or study abroad – which means that the real resident population on the territory of the country is much less. It is also important to note that the resident population is calculated based on issued ID cards and that we actually lack accurate statistics for the Bulgarians that left the country. Nonetheless, various indirect calculations point to about 2.5-3 million people who left since the beginning of the Transition. For example, there is startling indirect data from household electricity consumption as in one of the big regional centres – Stara Zagora, 40% of the electricity meters are not used, meaning the residents are absent.

Causes of the crisis

There are numerous reasons for this demographic collapse. Firstly, after the start of the political changes and the economic crisis in the 1990s, the first mass wave of emigration began and about 1 million Bulgarians left until 2005, mostly in search of a better and more stable life. Many of these people sought better career development in countries with rule-of-law, low levels of crime and corruption as well as better and more adequate social policies.

Secondly, talking about social policies, worsening quality of healthcare, education, lack of perspective, and a purposeful family policy by the state have seriously reduced birth rates. In this way, those who remained in the country began to have fewer children and the natural growth dramatically decreased to about 6 permilles.

Thirdly, after Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, Bulgarians were given the opportunity and easy access to work and education abroad and many preferred to leave the country for better professional and academic realization. As a result of the following new wave of emigration, the population dropped from 7.5 million in 2007 to 7 million a decade later.

It is necessary to consider that the demographic crisis in Bulgaria not only as people leaving the country but also the high mortality of the population. According to the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS), Bulgaria has the highest level of mortality among the other EU Member States and has had in the past 20 years a rate of 14-15 permilles compared to the EU average of 10 permilles (for members from Eastern Europe it is 12 permilles). Unfortunately, Bulgaria confidently holds the first place in mortality in the European Union and has leading positions in the charts for the countries with the fastest decreasing population, according to the BAS. Moreover, UN forecasts Bulgaria’s population to decrease by 52.4 percent by the turn of the century. To illustrate, by 1950s the population was 7.25 million, at the end of the 1980s it stood at nearly 9 million, in 2015 – 7.15 million and in 2100 it is projected to drop to a half of this.

Effects of the crisis

First of all, the demographic crisis has a devastating impact on our economic development. There will be less and less workforce in the country and, accordingly, its economic potential will remain low, with a downward trend. Many skilled workers leave the country and thus deprive it of the main engine needed to produce and provide services with high added value, sapping its competitiveness, which in turn further exacerbates the negative processes. In a modern global and interconnected economy, foreign investors are completely aware of these facts, and consequently their investments end up in other countries, depriving us of a useful and important resource for job creation and the development of the economy.

Furthermore, the age structure of the population will change drastically, leading to an increasing number of people leaving the working force, while ever-fewer young people will be able to replace them in the labour market and sustain the social system. Therefore, a growing social and economic burden will have to be borne by a smaller number of people. This will inevitably lead to negative effects on social security and pension systems, which are generally based on the continental European model – the working generation of today supports the generation that retired before. All of this in turn deepens the negative demographic spiral of the country.

Potential measures to resolve the crisis

On the basis of the above, the main priorities for the demographic crisis can be outlined as follows:

An extremely important element must be the measures to increase natural population growth (2/3 of the country’s depopulation). Measures to promote fertility as well as improving health care as a key factor in addressing the natural growth problem are urgently needed in order to combat the demographic problems of Bulgaria.

The attraction with an appropriate strategy of the Bulgarian citizens from abroad (1/3 of the depopulation of the country) is the second main vector of action, which would contribute to the reduction of the demographic problems in the country.

These priority measures would only be possible in combination with a set of additional social, economic and political actions to improve the standard and quality of life in our country and the relevant regulatory changes to reduce or eliminate a large part of the reasons for the unfavourable demographic trends.

The end of the Transition is not an illusion, but a series of strategies needed to develop future generations. If the demographic crisis is a key element in such a strategic framework, Bulgaria has a future after the Transition.

Author: Hristo Boshnakov
Email: hristo.boshnakov@sciencespo.fr
2018 Millennium Club Bulgaria


  • “Goals, priorities and policies for implementation of the demographic development strategy of the Republic of Bulgaria”, BAS Report, developed for the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Labour and Social Policy of the Republic of Bulgaria, Sofia, 2015;
  • “The Demographic Crisis in Bulgaria – Risks and Consequences”, Risk Management Lab, New Bulgarian University, January, 2014;
  • World Population Prospects 2017, UNITED NATIONS, DESA / POPULATION DIVISION;
  • Population and Demographic Forecasts, NSI, 2017;
  • “Demographic catastrophe of Bulgaria: who was ‘’for’’?, Miroslav Popov, a-specto, 2016.

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