Bulgaria's Population Implosion
Vassilev, Rossen, East European Quarterly
As a group, the countries of East-Central Europe now have the lowest fertility rate in the world (Council of Europe 2004). (1) Partly as a result of the demographic trends of its eastern half, average life expectancy at birth in all of Europe has declined for the first time since World War Two (UN/ECE 1999. (2) Falling longevity is the direct outcome of East-Central Europe's continuing social and economic problems, such as stagnant living standards, low real incomes, high poverty rates, unemployment, growing social inequality, environmental pollution, and a healthcare crisis that has resulted in untreated disease and early death, especially among the elderly and the poor. At the very time that these countries are experiencing high morbidity and mortality rates, including high infant mortality rates, (3) they are also losing population due to a "brain drain" among the young and most talented people, who are departing in increasing numbers for greener pastures abroad. Such an exodus cannot but result in even bigger economic and social problems down the road. The admission of some of these countries to membership in the European Union (EU) may in fact make the problem of emigration and the loss of "the best and the brightest" even worse than it is now (see Horvat 2004).
That the countries of East-Central Europe are losing population is indisputable. For example, the 2000 censuses in Estonia and Latvia revealed that the populations of these two Baltic states had fallen 11-12 percent since 1991 (RFE/RL Newsline, November 7, 2002). That the regionwide trend of shrinking populations will continue is also beyond dispute. In a 2003 study, the United Nations predicted that the population of East European countries such as Bulgaria and Latvia would decrease by as much as 50 percent by the middle of this century. At less than 1.3 children per woman per lifetime, East-Central Europe has the lowest fertility level in the world--even worse than the dangerously low 1.6 average of Western Europe (Markovic 2001).
The intent of this article is to explore the major reasons for the population implosion in Bulgaria, the nation that seems to be the worst afflicted demographically in post-Communist Eastern Europe. Bulgaria is even said to be threatened with "demographic death" (Shishkov 1997; Slavov 2004). Between 1990 and 1998, the country's birth rate declined by more than 35 percent, the death rate increased by 15 percent, and the general fertility rate decreased by 37 percent (UNDP 2004a). (4) Bulgaria has the lowest total fertility rate (TFR) ever recorded for a European country in peacetime--just 1.09 births per woman per lifetime in 2003. It has replaced Italy--until recently the symbol of Europe's future depopulation as the country with the lowest TFR in the world. (5) What is particularly worrying is that the national fertility level has dropped well below the replacement level, which is 2.1-2.2 children per woman per lifetime. If that catastrophic rate persists, each new generation in Bulgaria will be only about half the size of the preceding one. Even though Bulgaria's extremely low annual fertility is hardly an exception in Europe, such a dramatic change in the demographic characteristics of a country cannot be without serious economic, social, and political consequences for its future. This article will therefore explore briefly some short-term implications of Bulgaria's disastrous situation in the field of demographics, which is affecting the country and indeed the entire East-Central European region.
Bulgaria's Demographic Profile
Bulgaria is listed in all recent reports of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) as the East European nation with the largest negative population growth rate (a negative rate of natural increase means that the death rate is higher than the birth rate). The country has been plunged into a severe demographic crisis ever since its absolute population total began to fall in the late 1980s. …