Covid-19 pandemic gives new hope to one of the fastest shrinking countries in the world

SOFIA, Bulgaria – When Nicko Aleksiev left this city for France in 2011, he hadn’t expected to live in Bulgaria again.

But after the outbreak of the pandemic, Mr Aleksiev was fired and – like tens of thousands of other foreign workers in Western Europe – went home in June 2020. Now, after more than a year here, he has a job in Sofia and no plans to go abroad again.

After decades of mass migration from former Eastern Bloc countries to more lucrative opportunities in the West, the flow of people in Europe is showing signs of reversal.

Nicko Aleksiev returned to Bulgaria in 2020 and has no intention of going abroad again.


Nicko Aleksiev

In Estonia, returnees have overtaken emigrants since 2017. The migration balance to Poland has been in the black since 2016. And the trend has accelerated during the pandemic. Lithuania, which has lost a quarter of its citizens since 1990, saw a slight population increase last year as Covid-19 halted the waves of emigration that had long drained the country of young people.

Nowhere was the turnaround more dramatic than in Bulgaria.

Before the pandemic, Bulgaria was the second fastest-shrinking country in the world after Lithuania, according to United Nations forecasts. The population has decreased from nearly 9 million in the late 1980s to about 7 million today.

Last year, however, net migration was positive again for the first time in more than a decade. In 2020, around 30,000 more people moved to Bulgaria than they left the country, the vast majority of them Bulgarian citizens.

The question now arises whether these returnees will stay. The answer will have a major impact on both sides of the continent. Western European countries are facing record labor shortages, with many vacancies that would normally be filled by foreign workers. And in countries like Bulgaria, return migrants would be a blessing for economies that have been bleeding skilled workers and young people to death for a generation.

“The wave of people leaving Central and Eastern Europe and going west has reached its peak,” said Ognyan Georgiev, Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Last year, he conducted a study that found that tens of thousands of Bulgarians who had lived abroad long-term had come home during the pandemic.

“A significant percentage of them could stay,” he said of the returnees. “This is really an economic boost – not just for Bulgaria, but for countries like Romania and Poland. It has been recognized that you can have a good quality of life in Eastern Europe. “

Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union, and distrust of state institutions is rampant.


Borislav Troshev for the Wall Street Journal

Bulgaria’s population has decreased from nearly 9 million in the late 1980s to around 7 million today.


Borislav Troshev for the Wall Street Journal

When Mr Aleksiev, 29 years old, returned to Sofia last year, he thought the move might only be temporary. But he quickly decided not to move abroad any more.

Although he makes about half of his job at the airport in Nice, France, he said the money goes much further here. He lives in the city center by a well-tended, green park. He goes to restaurants more than he could afford in France and still saves money.

His office at Telus International, an outsourcing company where he oversees a French-speaking team, has a private gym with 360-degree views of the city. Many of his friends from high school – a French immersion school that usually sends many graduates abroad – have also come home.

“Sofia surprised me,” said Mr. Aleksiev. “It offers many opportunities, even better than some western cities, in terms of quality of life.”

Overall, however, the quality of life in Bulgaria lags far behind most parts of Europe. It is the poorest country in the European Union and there is widespread distrust of government institutions. Less than 30% of citizens are vaccinated against Covid-19, the lowest rate on the block. A study by Transparency International found that a fifth of residents said they had paid bribes for access to health care in the previous year, the second highest figure in the EU, only behind neighboring Romania.

Bans, vaccine requirements and travel restrictions have gripped Europe amid rising Covid infections and concerns about a variant discovered in South Africa, posing new challenges for the US as officials want to avoid further closings.

In April, after months of anti-corruption protests, the prime minister failed to win enough seats to form a government and resigned from parliament. After the November elections and months of political turmoil, a transitional government took office until a new one was installed at the beginning of the month.

Magdalena Kostova, a demographer at the Bulgarian National Statistics Institute, said she was skeptical that many of the returnees would stay long-term. Economic opportunities, education and access to basic services are far better elsewhere in Europe, she said.

“Living conditions have improved in recent years, but mainly in Sofia,” said Kostova. “That is not the case anywhere else in the country.”

Ivaylo Ivanov returned to Bulgaria earlier in the pandemic but left again this year for economic reasons.


Ivaylo Ivanov

In northwestern Bulgaria, the most depopulated region, villages have become ghost towns. The EU has funded new roads, bridges and railroad lines in hopes of attracting businesses to the region. But many jobs have also been automated in factories that are gaining a foothold. Rows of suburban houses built with funds from emigrants are dark.

Ivaylo Ivanov worked abroad as a pastry chef on cruise ships and was part of the mass exodus from the Vratsa province in northwestern Bulgaria, which has lost almost 40% of its population in the past two decades. Since 2005 he has usually only spent a few months a year at home.

But when the cruise industry closed in the spring of 2020, Mr Ivanov was stranded in Vratsa. He found work as a courier, but paid less than a quarter of what he earned on the boats. The debts began to pile up.

He left the country in March and is now working in a hotel in Germany. Although he said he would rather stay in Bulgaria – where he and his wife own a house and he can spend time with his two sons – he said he had no choice economically.

“The salaries in Bulgaria are a disaster,” he said. “The owners of a successful company treat people like slaves.”

Crumbling residential buildings in the town of Bobov Dol, Bulgaria.


Borislav Troshev for the Wall Street Journal

Economic opportunities in many parts of Bulgaria, such as Bobov Dol, are limited compared to other parts of Europe.


Borislav Troshev for the Wall Street Journal

Until the last few weeks, opportunities in Western Europe have been calling workers in the East louder as the continent’s largest economies demanded more workers. After a sharp decline in net immigration, Germany has more than a million vacancies and the authorities want to recruit around 400,000 skilled workers from abroad every year. Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and the United Kingdom all broke records for job vacancies this year.

In Lithuania, one of the few Eastern European countries that publishes monthly migration statistics, emigration rose in August. But the advent of the Omicron variant has brought international travel to a standstill for the time being.

Atanas Pekanov called Bulgaria’s dwindling population the greatest long-term challenge.


Kristina Kamburova

Atanas Pekanov, who served as deputy prime minister for managing EU funds under the Bulgarian transitional government, said the pandemic gave the country a chance. The longer people stay in Bulgaria, the more likely it is that they will stay permanently: “They are getting more and more used to being here.”

He called Bulgaria’s dwindling population “the greatest long-term challenge” and the emigration of young people “quite depressing”.

Mr Pekanov himself returned to Bulgaria during the pandemic. After the Prime Minister’s resignation in April, Mr. Pekanov returned from Austria, where he was working on his doctorate, to join the transitional government.

He said that people studying abroad should return to Bulgaria. Now that a new government has taken over, he said he would likely return to Vienna.

New houses on the outskirts of Sofia.


Borislav Troshev for the Wall Street Journal

Write to Ian Lovett at [email protected]

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