Covid-19 pandemic gives new hope to one of the world’s fastest-contracting countries

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

After decades of massive migration from the former Eastern bloc countries to more lucrative opportunities in the West, the flow of people to Europe is showing signs of reversing.

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

Nowhere has the turnaround been more dramatic than in Bulgaria.

Before the pandemic, Bulgaria was to be the second fastest-contracting country in the world behind Lithuania, according to United Nations projections. Its population has grown from nearly 9 million in the late 1980s to around 7 million today.

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

Now the question is whether these returnees will stay. The answer will have major implications for both sides of the continent. Western European countries are facing record labor shortages, with many jobs typically filled by empty foreign workers. And in countries like Bulgaria, returning migrants would be a boon to economies that have bled skilled workers and young people for a generation.

“The wave of people leaving central and eastern Europe and heading west has reached its peak,” said Ognyan Georgiev, visiting researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Last year he carried out a study which found that tens of thousands of Bulgarians who had lived abroad for a long time had returned home during the pandemic.

“A significant percentage of them could stay,” he said of the returnees. “It’s really an economic boost, not just for Bulgaria, but for countries like Romania and Poland. We realized that we could find a good quality of life in Europe from the East.”

When Mr Aleksiev, 29, returned to Sofia last year, he thought the move might be temporary. But he quickly decided not to move abroad anymore.

Although he earns about half of what he did working at the airport in Nice, France, he said the money goes a lot further here. He lives in the city center next to a well-kept and green park. He goes out to restaurants more often than he can afford in France, and always manages to save money.

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

“Sofia surprised me,” Aleksiev said. “It gives a lot of 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 European countries. It is the poorest country in the European Union and mistrust of government institutions is endemic. Less than 30% of citizens are vaccinated against Covid-19, the lowest rate in the bloc. A study by Transparency International found that a fifth of residents said they had paid a bribe to access healthcare the previous year, the second highest rate in the EU, behind neighboring Romania.

In April, after months of anti-corruption protests, the prime minister failed to win enough seats to form a government and resigned from parliament. A caretaker government took over until a new seat earlier this month, following the November elections and months of political turmoil.

Magdalena Kostova, a demographer at the Bulgarian National Statistical Institute, said she was skeptical that many returnees would stay long term. Economic opportunities, education and access to basic services have remained much better elsewhere in Europe, she said.

“There have been improvements in living conditions in recent years, but it is mainly in Sofia,” said Ms Kostova. “This is not the case elsewhere in the country.”

In northwestern Bulgaria, the most depopulated region, villages have turned into ghost towns. In the hope of attracting businesses to the region, the EU has funded new roads, bridges and railways. But even in the factories that have been established, a lot of work has been automated. The rows of suburban houses, built with the money sent by the emigrants, are dark.

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

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

In March he left the country again and now works in a hotel in Germany. Although he said he preferred to stay in Bulgaria – where he and his wife own a house and where he can spend time with his two sons – he said he had no choice, economically.

“Wages in Bulgaria are a disaster,” he said. “The owners of any successful business treat people like slaves.”

Until recent weeks, opportunities in Western Europe called for workers in the East harder, as the continent’s largest economies demanded more workers. Germany has more than a million jobs open after a sharp drop in net immigration, and officials say they want to attract some 400,000 skilled workers from abroad each year. Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and the UK have all broken vacancy records this year.

In Lithuania, one of the few Eastern European countries to publish monthly migration statistics, emigration figures started to rise in August. But the emergence of the Omicron variant has blocked international travel for the time being.

Atanas Pekanov, who was deputy prime minister for managing EU funds under Bulgaria’s caretaker government, said the pandemic had given the country an opportunity. The longer people stay in Bulgaria, he said, the more likely they are to stay permanently: “They are getting used to being here more and more.

He described the shrinking Bulgarian population as “the main long-term challenge” and the exodus of young people “quite depressing”.

Mr Pekanov himself returned to Bulgaria during the pandemic. After the prime minister’s resignation in April, Pekanov returned from Austria, where he was working on a doctorate, to join the interim government which took matters into its own hands.

He said that people who study abroad should come back to Bulgaria. Yet now that a new government has taken over, he has said he will likely return to Vienna.

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