Sunday, December 26, 2004

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Luiba Ovcharova sits on a bench outside a centrally located apartment building, smoking with two friends. The daily ritual for the three women in their late 70s goes along with their other daily routine: Relating the news about their grandchildren, all of whom live abroad in Germany, Spain and Canada.

Mrs. Ovcharova looks up at the building where these children, now in their 20s, grew up and shakes her head. “The old ones die, and the young ones go abroad.”

Her daughter moved with her husband and daughter to Canada in 1992. “My Vania has a good job with a technology company,” she says of her granddaughter, now 29. “I remember her with her five friends, climbing on trees and playing on the streets. Now I’m lucky to see her once every two years.”

A million Bulgarians have emigrated since the fall of communism in 1989, nearly 85 percent of them under age 30. Most of the Bulgarian emigrants went to Germany, followed by the United States and then Spain.

As many as 15 percent of Bulgarians between the ages of 15 and 60 still hope to move abroad, according to a survey by Bulgaria’s National Statistics Institute.

Although the country is set to join the European Union in 2007, Bulgaria is poorer than its Western neighbors. The average monthly wage in Bulgaria is about $211. The official unemployment rate is 12 percent.

But joblessness is about double that rate among young people, estimates Kristen Ghodsee, a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine, who has done research in Bulgaria for more than a decade.

“A lot of young people are leaving Bulgaria — for good reasons. Unemployment is extremely high. The quality of college education is very much compromised,” she said.

Although young people have been leaving since the early 1990s, Bulgaria’s case has not been one of “brain drain,” Ms. Ghodsee said. The term refers to the exodus of educated professionals, which from an economic perspective is seen as negative because the country paid for their education, but won’t reap the benefits of their work later.

That might be changing now, as most young people who leave do so to attend foreign colleges that have offered them scholarships. Others — who hold degrees from Bulgarian universities — migrate to tourist spots and earn a living at hotels, cafes and restaurants.

Mrs. Ovcharova’s granddaughter left as a teenager. But her friends’ grandchildren left on their own, much later.

“These young people — it’s difficult for them now,” laments Lara Zhivkova, who lives two floors below Mrs. Ovcharova. Her grandson, Mitko, studied law, but was disenchanted by a combination of dim job prospects, tales of student-professor relationships and grade-buying at the university. He went to work for a construction company in Libya. A year later he moved to Malaga, Spain, where he works as a chef at a hotel.

“If he can make more money as a chef there than as a lawyer here, then what can I say?” asked Mrs. Zhivkova.

Bulgaria has the fastest shrinking population in Europe. The exodus of thousands of Bulgarians is compounded by a historically decreasing birthrate. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates Bulgaria’s population in 2001 at 7.7 million and says it will be about 7.3 million by 2006.

“We’ve seen the migration of thousands of young people since 1992, which for Bulgaria is disastrous,” said Hristina Mitreva, general director at the National Social Security Institute, Bulgaria’s pension agency. “These are young, educated people of reproductive age.”

The government — its plate full combating corruption, modernizing its legislature so that it can join the European Union in 2007, and trying to boost economic growth … has not sought to keep young people from leaving the country.

“Those are people that we cannot tap into,” said Mrs. Mitreva, warning that Bulgaria is left with a larger percentage of elderly than younger people, which strains the nearly bankrupt pension system.

For a pension system to be effective, the ratio of workers to pensioners should be at least four to one, she said. In Bulgaria, it is less than one to one. The country has reformed its pension system to include various savings options, but this is unlikely to solve the problem. The United Nations estimates that the percentage of the Bulgarian population over 65 will double to 30 percent from 2000 to 2050.

The situation is only likely to worsen, because birthrates are not likely to rise, and as more young Bulgarians prosper abroad, their success stories will encourage more young people to leave in search of better lives in Europe and North America.

“When young people flee a country, that means that country is not doing very well,” Ms. Ghodsee said. But she added a bright side: Bulgarians who do well abroad send money home to their relatives.

“It pays for my cigarettes,” said Mrs. Zhivkova, as she lit another and inhaled.

“And I got new carpet in the living room this year. And I’m happy for Mitko. But sometimes I think I would rather he had stayed.”

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