Country in contraction: Serbia struggles with population decline

(SERBIA): Remember when your small mining town in eastern Serbia was a vibrant home for 200 families, it had its own school, a doctor and a shop.

How times have changed. Now, about 60 years later, it is a ghost town with only eight residents.

The transformation of Blagojev Kamen is not unique in a country that experienced years of war and sanctions in the 1990s after the breakup of Yugoslavia. In a twist of historical irony, one of the causes behind those years of war was the idea of ​​creating a Great Serbia from the ashes of the former Yugoslavia.

Almost empty villages can be seen with abandoned and crumbling houses throughout Serbia, a clear symptom of a reduction that is raising acute questions about the country's economic well-being. The decline occurs so fast that it is considered a national emergency and the United Nations He has intervened to help.

This village used to be full of people, I used to go to school here, recalls Trainovic, 71.

It is a shame and it is so sad that everyone has left ... now we are only a few and there are no young people. However, it is measured, the numbers look clear.

According to the World Bank, Serbia's population of just under 7 million is expected to fall to 5.8 million by 2050. That would represent a 25 percent drop since 1990.

The government says that the Balkan country is effectively losing a city every year, and that up to 18 municipalities have fewer than 10,000 people: We are 103 fewer people every day.

Population changes are a fact of life in Europe, but the problem is very different in Central and Eastern Europe, where the low fertility rates that are common in developed countries are combined with high migration rates and low immigration. more similar to developing nations.

The economic effects in a country that strives to join the European Union are evident and add billions of dollars in the short term. In the long term, there are also costs related to the fact that a smaller population of working age will have to contribute more to support people of retirement age.

El y el Fondo de Población de las United Nations han reunido un grupo de siete expertos internacionales de diferentes orígenes y especialidades para ayudar. Los miembros visitaron Serbia el mes pasado para una misión de investigación.

Wolfgang Lutz, an Austrian demographic expert at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, or IIASA, said the main problem is related to the composition of people leaving Serbia instead of the general population decline.

We see that it tends to be the best educated, most skilled, most motivated mobile people who leave and that is undoubtedly a loss of human capital, he told The Associated Press in an interview.

Reflecting the decades of crisis, there are towns like Blagojev Kamen. It had flourished when a nearby gold mine kept the area alive before and after World War II, but its fortune sank when the mine closed in the mid-1990s.

Trainovic said there is still gold and other minerals in the mine, but he needs investment and hard work.

One of my children is inside and the other is in Austria, he said. They visit often but have nothing to return to.

The Serbian government has tried to counteract the trend, offering financial benefits for couples with multiple children, state-backed IVF, renovation of schools and kindergartens, helping families in rural areas or supporting business in villages.

Ruth Finkelstein, an assistant professor at Columbia University and an expert on aging and its social implications, said Serbia should also strive to find a role for its growing elderly population.

Room after room, people focus only on young people, he said.

Not only Serbia is worried.

Croatia, a neighbor of Serbia, who currently occupies the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, has made the urgent problem of demographic challenges a priority.

The rural areas of Croatia have been emptying at an alarming rate, while more than 15 percent of the 4.2 million Croats live and work abroad. Bulgaria and Ukraine are two others who suffer a population decline.

Stjepan Sterc, a leading Croatian demographic expert, believes that efforts to address the problems so far in the Balkans are not enough and that the tax system should focus more on reversing trends.

Demography must be recognized as the essence of economic development so that the most important stimulus tool is directed towards it, he said.

Lutz, who runs the World Population Program for IIASA, said small countries can have a competitive advantage.

I have seen a lot of pessimism, I have seen a lot of panic even about what is happening, he said. The challenge is to turn this ... into some action that is positive, making this a more revitalized and vibrant society that looks to the future.