Is Romania considered part of the Balkans

Bye-bye Balkans

The former communist countries of Southeast Europe are suffering from a catastrophic decline in population, with far-reaching social and political consequences.

The boys are moving away. The births are falling. Societies are aging. And although hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants pour through large parts of the region, few of them want to stay. Borders, ethnic controversies, EU accession, NATO membership and legacy from the war of the 1990s - these topics dominate the news from the Balkans. Serious analyzes of the demographic decline, depopulation and the shrinking workforce in the region can hardly be found. Maybe it's because governments don't have credible answers or the resources to counter it. If demographics are fate, then the future of the Balkans looks bleak - but that's not only the case here. From Greece to Poland, almost all Eastern, Central and Southeastern European countries are struggling with the same problems.

According to current forecasts, by 2050 there will be 38.6 percent fewer people in Bulgaria than in 1990. In Serbia it will be 23.8 percent fewer, in Croatia 22.4 percent and in Romania 30.1 percent. The Republic of Moldova has already lost 33.9 percent of its population. Bosnia-Herzegovina's fertility rate is 1.26, one of the lowest in the world. With a median age of 29, Kosovo is the country with the youngest inhabitants in the region, but the population is declining here too. Even if the numbers and percentages differ, similar trends can be observed almost everywhere, although they are even more pronounced in some countries. The median age in Serbia is 43, which is above the EU average of 42.6 years. No matter how you turn it around, the demographic future of the Balkans and this part of Europe affected by emigration and chronically low birth rates is dramatic.

Unlike in the past

Historically, all countries in the region, and in fact most of Europe, have experienced periods of heavy emigration. In the case of the former Yugoslavia, hundreds of thousands went abroad as guest workers from the 1960s onwards. Even if they didn't necessarily intend to turn their backs on their homeland forever, many of them never came back - perhaps because their children were living abroad, or because of the war, or for both reasons. A few decades earlier, Jews left the country - or died in the Holocaust - and ethnic Germans were driven out or killed. A generation earlier, it was Muslims, Albanians and Turks from Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans in general who migrated in various waves during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many emigrated to the United States from the Dalmatian islands and parts of Montenegro. From Greece they moved to Turkey or Bulgaria or vice versa.

While birth deficits and emigration in the west are offset by immigration, relatively few people move to the Balkan countries.

In terms of numbers, that didn't make a big difference, as women had five to seven children at the time. Emigration eased the pressure on land and resources, at least in peacetime, and the population continued to grow. This is one of the reasons why today's situation is so different from what it was in the past. At that time, the Balkan states had the classic demographic characteristics of poor emigration countries. Today, however, the region is showing symptoms of both rich and poor countries. That has never happened before.

Statistical nightmare

To better understand the impact of demographic decline, one needs to know what questions to ask and how to interpret the available data. No reliable figures are available on the subject of emigration. Births and deaths are recorded, this data is known to us. Whether someone is dead or alive is beyond doubt. But where do you live is a completely different question. If you go to work abroad, you don't have to report this to any job in your own country. In the target countries there may be figures on how many people have registered there, but these are rarely evaluated. The Croatian National Bank is one of the few institutions that has examined this data and has shown how difficult it is to get concrete figures. One and the same person can be registered as a voter and taxpayer in their own country and appear in several other countries at the same time.

Take the example of a woman from eastern Croatia, where there is not much work, or at least not much well-paid work. She lives at home for six months and takes care of elderly people abroad in the other half. She may have an Irish or UK social security number and may have recently worked in Germany. She could also be Serbian and have a Serbian or Bosnian passport. If she owns a property in one of these countries, she could also appear in the statistics as a resident there. To make matters worse, many of the people registered abroad as Croatian citizens are actually from Bosnia. One can roughly assume that 20 percent of them are of Bosnian origin, but there is no valid data on this. Bosnian Croatians and anyone who can convincingly demonstrate that they are one is entitled to a Croatian passport. Since Bosnia, unlike Croatia, does not belong to the EU, Croatian citizenship increases the chances of getting a job in the Union. Hungary issues passports to Hungarians in Romania, Serbia and elsewhere, and Romania gives Romanian citizenship to a large part of the Moldovan population. Bulgaria issues passports to people from Macedonia. For these and other reasons, even the population and demographics quoted in reputable media are often completely wrong.

Some recent examples:

According to the Financial Times, Moldova has 3.5 million people. In 2018 the newspaper reported that 3.6 million Romanians - or 16 percent of the population - had emigrated since 2007. The Guardian recently highlighted in a graphic that Kosovo lost 15.4 percent of its population between 2007 and 2018, the largest decline in Europe. All of these numbers are wrong.

There are no more than three million people living in the Republic of Moldova today, possibly far fewer. The figures for Romania refer to the population decline between 1990 (not 2007) and 2017 and also include other factors, not just emigration. The population decrease in Kosovo from 1991 (not 2007) is actually around 4.3 percent. As for Kosovo, the reason for the blatant error is that there were no reliable figures prior to the 2011 census, which showed that there were far fewer people living in the country than previously thought. So comparisons were made between the current figures and the high, but completely inaccurate, previous figures. The media and academia assume that the figures on the websites of national statistical offices should be correct because they are government agencies. At least in this region, this is not necessarily the case or the figures are not adequately explained. In 1991 the last Yugoslav census recorded around one million citizens living abroad. This is extremely rarely taken into account in an analysis of the population figures before and after the war, which is why apples are usually compared here with pears, i.e. a total number including people who did not live in the country in 1991 is the sum of those who actually lived in the country after the war Juxtaposed successor states with living people.

The people in the Balkans live long - not as long as in the richer countries of Europe, but much longer than in poorer countries. At the same time, as in wealthier countries, fertility rates have fallen dramatically. But while birth deficits and emigration in the west are offset by immigration, relatively few people move to the Balkan countries. In Central and Eastern Europe, the strong emigration and low birth rates could only be significantly offset in Poland by the unplanned immigration of more than a million people from the Ukraine, thanks to which the otherwise critical labor shortage could be alleviated

Governments helplessness

Even if the situation is well known everywhere, governments do not know what to do about it or do not have the necessary means. In Croatia, young couples can take advantage of state-subsidized mortgages. But even for this, a certain share capital must first be available, and the number of available mortgages and the number of possible pairs is negligible compared to the extent of the problem. Some countries provide special grants to women and families with multiple children. However, there is no evidence (at least not yet) that such measures can induce them to have more children.

In Poland, which is far more affluent, families with low incomes benefit from considerable tax advantages, which have made them loyal supporters of the ruling Law and Justice party, but no more children are born here either. If one does not want to fall back on travel restrictions in the old communist style, there seems to be little that can be done about emigration, apart from sharp wage increases in certain areas such as health care. However, money is not the only reason people leave their homes. In the past, those who did not want to go abroad moved from the village to the small town and from there to the capital.

The difference between then and now Europe is that today it is easier than ever to skip this step. The Balkans and other former communist countries are the villages of today. If you come from rural Bulgaria or a small town in Poland, why should you move to little Sofia or dreary Wroclaw when you can go straight to London or Berlin? The big wide world is waiting out there. Most Europeans do not need a visa for most western countries, and cheap airlines mean that you can, for example, fly back and forth from Austria or Italy, just as earlier generations would have done by bus within their own country. Secondary airports such as Stansted or Beauvais now play the same role as bus stations, from which one used to travel to distant provinces.

Labor market crisis

Meanwhile, demographics and emigration are leading to labor shortages everywhere. Governments face a real problem. The problems and costs caused by unemployment are hugely cushioned by migration, which also generates capital inflows through money transfers. At the same time, however, the working age population is also declining, deterring foreign investors or, in some cases, even leaving them. The logical answer to the labor shortage would be wage increases, but that is not happening, at least not on a large scale. In the former Yugoslavia, bus companies do not have the necessary funds to compete with the wages of German companies that need drivers. This applies to Belgrade as well as to Rijeka in Croatia. In areas where work is relatively easy and low wages, such as the auto parts industry in Moldova, it is cheaper for companies to move than to pay higher wages.

Of course, this is not the case in all areas: in some companies wages are increased and employees are retained, especially in sectors that require highly qualified personnel, such as information technology. Wages may not match those in London or California, but since the cost of living is also significantly lower, many, if not all, find it worthwhile to stay. In other areas, however, this is not the case or the prevailing economic structures make it difficult to remain competitive. In Croatia, for example, the dominant seasonal tourism distorts the actual situation.

In the past, enough workers could always be found from the poorer areas of Croatia or the surrounding region to help out in the holiday regions on the coast for three months. In the meantime, however, people are less and less willing to do so, since in Germany a lot more money can be earned under far better conditions in a whole or even half a year. In July, the Croatian government bowed to pressure from desperate employers and issued more work permits for foreign personnel. Romania did that too. One way of solving the problem of the declining workforce is immigration. Poland succeeded in doing this by opening its doors to workers from Ukraine and increasingly from other countries as well.

Others will have to follow suit if they want to focus on further economic growth, but in countries with no tradition of immigration it will be difficult. A small plus point, which can at least be observed in Romania, is that previously marginalized Roma get jobs that would previously have been denied them. Money earned abroad also helps to create a middle class among the Roma for the first time. The example of Poland has shown that governments that follow the logic of immigration also have to perform a political balancing act.

Poland's government speaks out against immigration and refused to accept several thousand refugees during the 2015 refugee crisis. At the same time, a large number (albeit white and Christian) Ukrainians have been secretly allowed into the country. While this type of policy may serve as a model for others, it may also be difficult to emulate, at least as far as the Balkans are concerned. Where is the Balkan Ukraine? Even if fewer and fewer people want to live in rural areas, growth can be observed in some places.

According to the mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, the city is growing by 25,000 inhabitants per year, while Albania is losing more and more people to other countries. Cluj in Transylvania is a booming city with crowds of people from other parts of Romania and abroad. Your success is based on a knowledge-based economy and IT. In some places in Romania, foreign investment in building modern factories halted depopulation and even led some to return. If cities like Cluj could be reproduced a thousand times and work were carried out on improving the standard of living everywhere, as in Tirana, then the situation would be completely different.

Tightened by the EU

Even if you don't like to admit it: EU membership worsened the situation, at least initially. In the meantime, however, there is hardly any discernible difference between members and non-members in Europe. In countries such as Poland, Romania and Croatia, the opening of the labor market led to millions leaving their homes. Countries like Germany are now opening their markets to qualified workers from non-EU countries. A few years ago, illegal migration and bogus asylum seekers were the problem. Today people are queuing in front of the consulates in Belgrade, Banja Luka or Pristina and looking for work permits, which are often financed by companies from the EU countries Croatia and Slovenia. Migration has political consequences.

Europe's futures

Europe is experiencing its most dramatic and challenging time since the end of World War II. The European project is at stake and liberal democracy is being challenged both internally and externally. There is an urgent need on all sides of state and non-state actors to address the burning issues and reaffirm what has been carefully achieved through the political peace project.

Between 2018 and 2021, six to eight leading European experts volunteer as Europe’s Futures Fellows every year. You are creating a unique platform of ideas to present fundamental measures, the aim of which is to strengthen and advance the vision and reality of Europe. Europe’s Futures is based on in-depth studies, concrete political proposals and the exchange with state and civil society actors, public discourse and the media.

Across the region, demographics are becoming a political issue - and not just in terms of governments promising to take action.The Serbian President compared the current population figures of Serbs and Albanians with forecasts that show that the number of Serbians compared to the Albanian population will decrease dramatically. He is trying to reach a consensus before he possibly concludes an unpopular agreement with Kosovo.

Numerous citizens who have long since emigrated are listed in the electoral registers everywhere. That is in the interests of politics, because it is easier to win elections with bloated lists. In North Macedonia, the referendum on the name change in 2018 failed not only because of the opposition boycott, but also because the necessary threshold was not so easy to reach because so many people on the electoral roll were abroad.

When the government of the Republic of Moldova was overthrown in June 2019 and another came to power, in one of its first official acts it reversed a regulation issued for the last election, according to which the diaspora could only vote with valid Moldovan passports or ID cards. Why was that important? Because the majority of the supporters of Maia Sandu, Prime Minister-designate, belong to the diaspora living in the west with Romanian passports, i.e. there was a higher quota of expired Moldovan documents among them.

In Albania, the opposition blames the government for the fact that up to half a million people have left the country in recent years. But this is political fiction, because hundreds of thousands have also come back or are commuter migrants who come and go. Migration also has effects in the destination countries and provides breeding ground for national populist parties. To what extent the arrival of a flood of people from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, etc. was decisive for the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK is impossible to quantify, but there is no doubt that it played a role.


How can countries solve these problems? Or is it hopeless? These are the big questions of our time, and sometimes governments feel like they are going up an escalator going down. Why do people emigrate? It's not just about money. It is also about education, health care and other services - and increasingly it has to do with the fact that people have lost hope of ever living in orderly and democratic societies that are not ruled by corruption. When these countries become more prosperous, large parts of the population will have already lived abroad and want the same standards of living, including social benefits, that they enjoyed in these Western countries. “For my father's generation,” says Majlinda, a 25-year-old Albanian student who studied in Holland, “things have changed very quickly, but for me it doesn't go fast enough!” That is why the expectation gap has widened so much larger than any other generation in the past.

Governments have to make sure that people want to live in their countries. It's not that difficult in and of itself, but maybe it's too late for that.

Now one could logically think that assuming these countries are the villages of today, tax transfers in a more federal Europe could be the answer, but that is not to be expected in the current climate. The countries of the Western Balkans, let alone the Republic of Moldova, are not even part of the EU, and in some places people are beginning to doubt that this will ever be the case. But what can be gleaned from that part of the former communist world that solved the problem of tax transfers? The answer is not encouraging. Almost three decades after reunification, the population in East Germany is still falling. In order to slow down this development and hopefully reverse it, governments have to make sure that people want to live in their countries. It's not that difficult in and of itself, but maybe it's too late for that. Countries cannot disappear, but they can get old and thus poorer than western countries, which in turn leads to even more emigration. If these countries had always been very rich, such as Japan, there would be more room for action, but since this is not the case and the outlook remains bleak, the issue deserves urgent attention. It takes action and ideas, not just from governments and think tanks in shrinking countries, but across Europe, before the imbalance of events becomes another problem that threatens our liberal democratic foundations.

The article reflects the opinion of the author and does not represent the point of view of BIRN or the ERSTE Foundation.

Original in English. First published on October 14, 2019 on, a journalistic platform of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. This text was created as part of the Europe’s Futures project.
Translated from the English by Barbara Maya.

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