SEASTERN EUROPE is in a Catch-22. The many problems in the region are pushing young people and talents to leave in droves. But it won’t catch up with the rest of Europe without young and talented people to generate prosperity. In the Balkans, populations are shrinking and aging, and unless that changes, more will go.
It is difficult to measure demographics in the Balkans: apart from births and deaths, data are difficult to obtain. A truck driver who leaves Belgrade to work in Germany does not have to tell the Serbian authorities. Due to the complicated history of the region, millions of its citizens can obtain passports from neighboring “metropolises”. These are particularly interesting if the mother country belongs to the EU, since EU citizenship includes the right to work anywhere in the union. A fifth of Croatian passport holders working abroad are probably from Bosnia, and almost all Moldovans working in the West have Romanian documents. All of this makes it difficult to tell which is where.
Yet the available data paint a clear picture. The population of all Balkan countries is declining due to emigration and low fertility. In the past, populations declined after waves of emigration as many women had six children. Now, few have more than one. Serbia could have more retirees than working-age people by next year.
In the short term, governments do not care about emigration because it reduces unemployment and increases remittances from abroad. But in the long run, says Vladimir Nikitovic, a Serbian demographer, it’s “catastrophic.” About 50,000 people leave Serbia every year. Of those who return, around 10,000 are retirees who have spent their working lives in the West. Their children will not follow them.
According to current projections, Bulgaria will have 39% fewer inhabitants by 2050 compared to 1990 (see graph). The region has some of the lowest fertility rates in the world. Bosnian women have an average of 1.3 children and Croats 1.4. Kosovo, with a median age of 29, has the youngest population in the region, but its fertility rate of 2.0 (just below the replacement rate) has also been declining for years. Elsewhere, the rates are similar to those in Western European countries. But since the Balkans hardly receive taxpaying immigrants, pensioners’ money is scarce.
The effects of population reduction are striking. In the height of summer vacation, Rasnov, a pretty town in the hills of Transylvania in Romania that once had a bustling market, is eerily empty, with barely a cafe open. A generation ago, its population of Saxon origin, which dates back to the Middle Ages, moved to Germany. Its native Romanians are looking for work elsewhere. They send money to their aging parents, but few return except to retire. Why work in a cafe in Rasnov when you can do the same for a lot more money abroad?
A few towns in the region have grown. Cluj, another city in Transylvania, is booming. The capital of Albania, Tirana, also attracts people. Its mayor, Erion Veliaj, says she faces an influx of 25,000 people each year. But these are exceptions.
This combination of rapid emigration, low fertility and sparse immigration produces the worst outcome imaginable, says Kresimir Ivanda, a Croatian demographer. Greece, Italy and Spain have low birth rates, but attract a lot of immigrants. In Poland, more than a million Ukrainians have filled the labor market gaps left by emigration.
Mr Nikitovic worked for a national commission on resolving the demographic crisis in Serbia, but the government, he says, did not follow through on his ideas enough to make a big difference. As in many Balkan countries, the problems are legion. Women are discouraged from having more children because of the lack of protection against dismissal when they become pregnant. Inexpensive air travel makes it easier to find work abroad (or did before covid-19). Under normal circumstances, Croatian caregivers in Britain or Romanians in German slaughterhouses can commute to short-term jobs. This exacerbates home labor shortages, which in turn drives up wages. Ivan Vejvoda, of the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, believes that meeting the needs of Western Europe without emptying the Balkan countries of their population requires concerted action from the EU and states in the region.
Of course, for the citizens of the Balkan countries, earning higher wages abroad is a godsend. Remus Gabriel Anghel, a Romanian demographer, says the migration experiences of the past 15 years have also been a driver of social change. Before, people just wanted to make ends meet; now those who have lived in Western Europe demand better schools, hospitals and services. This, says Anghel, is something the government “doesn’t really understand”. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Vieillir, die, leaving”