The Far Right’s Quixotic Fight Against “Demographic Catastrophe” in Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s shrinking population and potentially shifting demographics are inspiring the usual far-right hysteria. Michael Colborne delves into the current right-wing panic over birthrates.


It’s no secret that Bulgaria’s population is plummeting. But the United Patriots, the gaggle of far-right nationalists who have been sitting as junior partners in Boyko Borisov’s government since May, think they can stop it.

In 1989, almost nine million people lived in Bulgaria. It’s since lost almost a fifth of its population; Bulgaria today is home to a little over seven million people, and is projected to be less than 5.5 million by 2050.

But there’s more hiding behind these numbers. Yes, the majority ethnic Bulgarian population is declining, but there are two significant minority groups in Bulgaria – Bulgarian Turks (around 9 percent of the population) and Roma (estimated between 7 and 10 percent) – and their populations are anything but declining.

The total fertility rate – essentially, the total number of children born or likely to be born to a woman in her lifetime – among ethnic Bulgarians is estimated at around 1.1 per 1,000, well below the level of 2.1 that’s generally regarded as the level need to sustain a population. On their own, ethnic Bulgarians would have one of the lowest levels of fertility in the world, if not the lowest.

The same can’t be said for Turks and Roma in Bulgaria. The fertility rate among Bulgarian Turks is twice that of ethnic Bulgarians (2.3), and the Roma rate almost three times (3.0) that of ethnic Bulgarians. On top of this, Bulgaria also has Europe’s highest teenage pregnancy rate. It’s highest among Roma women, with a rate between 10 and 12 times higher than that of ethnic Bulgarians.

Pair this with Bulgaria’s high emigration rate: in the last census in 2011 it was calculated that 6 per cent of the population had left the country. Then pair these with the fact that Bulgaria’s got the highest crude death rate in the world. Now you’ve got all you need to send a population careening down the wrong curve on the chart.

A population of ethnic Bulgarians, that is. The starkest projections from Bulgaria’s Academy of Sciences suggest that, in 2050, Bulgaria could be home to 3.5 million Roma, 1.2 million Turks and 800,000 ethnic Bulgarians. It’s why far-right figures like Sultanka Petrov, a member of Krasimir Karakachanov’s Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO) and a deputy minister of labour and social policy, publicly muse that parts of Bulgaria “will be completely depopulated, and in these depopulated areas people from another cultural and civilizational code will settle.”

Still, the United Patriots talk like they’ve got the blueprints to turn it around. In his 2016 presidential run, Karakachanov – who’s now defence minister and a Deputy PM – and his campaign bragged that they had “a clear plan to deal with the demographic catastrophe,” which included policies to increase birth rates among “literate” people and attract Bulgarians back from abroad.

And if you weren’t sure what they think of the growth of the Roma population, Karakachanov’s campaign also included a pledge to stop the “gypsyfication” of the country.

The VMRO and its two partners in the United Patriots, Valeri Simeonov’s National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) and Volen Siderov’s ATAKA, have longed called for policies that they say would increase the ethnic Bulgarian population and curtail the growth of Turks and Roma. They’ve called for giving greater benefits to families where the parents have at least secondary education – effectively excluding many Roma and Turks, whose levels of educational attainment are far lower on average than ethnic Bulgarians – and cutting off Roma with small families from state support since, in the words of one commentator, they give birth to “unhappy children.”

And now Simeonov is in a position to act. He’s been in charge of Bulgaria’s demographic policy since May, and also chairs the country’s federal council on ethnic and integration issues. Over the past few months he’s been hosting roundtables and discussions and making some more concrete proposals, from giving state support for families to have a third child to providing interest-free loans to attract Bulgarians back from abroad. And immigration isn’t the answer, says Simeonov. He told the BBC last month he doesn’t even want Bulgaria to accept educated and skilled migrants, and that he’s only focused on bringing Bulgarians living abroad back home.

If you think these kinds of musings might not sound that bad considering the kind of nonsense 2017’s given us so far, just remember they’re coming from Valeri Simeonov. This is a man who last year said Roma women have the instincts of “stray dogs.” This is a man who’s called for the demolition of “gypsy ghettoes” and once mused about putting Roma in “reservations” that could then generate profit as “tourist attractions.” This is a man who assaulted an elderly woman during a protest to stop Turks from crossing the border to vote in March’s elections.

In other words, the man in charge of the demographic policies of the fastest-shrinking country in the world is a man who’d really, really like his country’s two largest minorities to just go away.

But Simeonov’s cack-handed policies are set to do the opposite. Can he really compensate for decades of complicated societal trends with government prizes for having bigger families? Can he untie the political-economic forces at the heart of the modern Europe with the stroke of a pen, and convince hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians from Spain, Germany or the United Kingdom to come home – let alone people of “Bulgarian self-consciousness” from Greece, Ukraine or Moldova?

And above all, can he slow down minority birth rates by amping up the discrimination against them? Bulgarian Turks and Roma are already on the outs of Bulgarian society – lower employment rates, lower levels of education on average, poorer living conditions, you name it . And given that higher birth rates are associated with exclusion and poverty, keeping Bulgaria’s minorities forever on the outside looking in isn’t going to do a thing.

If there’s an answer, it’s to actually try and close the gap between ethnic Bulgarians and Turks and Roma. It’s to accept that no amount of government action is going to be able to completely turn back the tide, and to accept that immigration, to some extent, is going to have to be part of the solution. It’s to realize, above all, that wrapping discrimination up as demographic policy isn’t going to help anyone.

As proposals like Simeonov’s flounder and fail over the next few years, it’s worrying to think about what people like him might propose next.


Cover photo credit: gato-gato-gato/flickr/some rights reserved


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Michael Colborne

Michael Colborne is a Canadian journalist based in Prague who covers all things central and eastern Europe. He tweets at @ColborneMichael.