Bulgarian towns are shrinking, and the birth rate is falling rapidly. Now Bulgarians are worried that even more of their young people will leave after the country joins the EU on Jan 1.
Fields are lying fallow in Bulgaria as people leave to work abroad
The young have left town and most factories are closed but many Bulgarians in places like Belogradchik wonder whether membership of the European Union will be any help.
Most of the people who fled the northwestern town after the fall of communism in 1989 went to the EU, a bloc which Bulgaria and neighboring Romania will join on January 1.
In the past 17 years Belogradchik's population has fallen from 11,000 to 6,500, according to deputy mayor Angel Dzhuninski.
In some towns, nearly all the young people have left
Many streets are nearly deserted and fields lay fallow.
The town's biggest employer, a manufacturer of phones for the Russian market, now employs only 100 people compared to 2,600 in communist times.
"It will be a problem to bring home the young people who are now working in Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain, Austria and the Czech Republic," said Dzhuninski.
Many went to Western Europe on three-month tourist visas and stayed on to work clandestinely in farming, hotel and construction business or as home nurses.
The owner of a small inn, Parvoletka Mladenova, said most of the migrants are doing the dirty and low-qualified jobs that wealthy Europeans do not want.
"Friends, a couple who were a doctor and a nurse, went to care for elderly people in Greece," she said.
Population shrinking dramatically
The Bulgarian Academy of Science estimates that more than one million people have sought work abroad since 1989, when the country's population was nine million. The mass emigration of young women has aggravated a demographic crisis.
Between 1990 and 2004 the population slumped by 1.2 million to 7.76 million people, according to official census data.
It is an open question whether EU entry will revitalize Bulgaria's economy
Bulgaria has one of the world's lowest birth rates with a ratio of 1.2 children per mother in child-bearing age. Its child mortality rate is 12.3 per thousand, compared to the European average of 4.5 per thousand.
Parliament approved this year a plan to encourage births. It offers longer and better-paid maternity leave and improved childcare, allowing young mothers to get back to work soon after giving birth.
At Mezdra, another small northwestern Bulgarian town, half of the 30,000 population has gone in the past 15 years, Mayor Ivan Asparuhov said.
But unemployment has been halved to 11 percent thanks to restructuring in the textile, brewing and quarrying industries and the arrival of tourism.
More babies are being born and "we are opening new kindergartens" but some 400-500 young people are leaving the region every year to seek better jobs, Asparuhov said.
Not all EU contries welcoming
Last Wednesday, Germany became the latest EU nation to restrict the number of Bulgarian and Romanian workers that will be allowed for two years after January 1. Sweden and Finland are the only members of the pre-2004 EU to openly say they will not restrict Bulgarian workers.