Lure of jobs abroad sounds death knell for rural Bulgaria

By Martin Evans in Sofia

Rural Bulgaria is emptying as people seek jobs in the EU. Bulgarians and Romanians are able to compete in the job markets of nine EU states they had been barred from working in. Photo / AP
Rural Bulgaria is emptying as people seek jobs in the EU. Bulgarians and Romanians are able to compete in the job markets of nine EU states they had been barred from working in. Photo / AP

A decade ago the village of Dolna Melna, near Bulgaria's border with Serbia, was a thriving community with shops, a post office and five pubs.

While life was tough for local people, who scratched out a living raising livestock and growing crops on the barely fertile land, their strong family ties and pride in the region kept their community together.

But these days, thanks to the terminal decline in Bulgaria's rural economy, the village is all but abandoned, everyone under 70 moving overseas to seek work. From yesterday, those Bulgarians and millions of others across what is one of Europe's poorest countries gain the right to live and work in Britain.

People around Dolna Melna believe it could be the final nail in the coffin for rural life, saying young rural Bulgarians will have no choice but to take advantage of the relaxed European Union rules and head to Western Europe to seek a better life.

Tracing its origins back to the turn of the 20th century, Dolna Melna, about 110km from Sofia, once had a population over 500. That is now 17, with the average age well over 75.

Tsetsa Gerginova, 85, a widow who has just her pet dog for company, has witnessed the slow death of the village as people moved abroad to find work. The former postal worker said: "My son moved to Spain where his wife is a nurse. When her contract finishes they'll come back to Bulgaria, but not here because there's no work.

"It's very sad but when the last of us die, the village will be gone forever. If I was to leave I would go to England but I'm too old now."

Maria Petrova, 80, said: "I grew up here but my family, like everyone else, had to leave to find jobs. There are many good builders from this area so they found work easily."

The village's Orthodox church, proudly resurrected after the fall of communism, now lies abandoned as there's no priest near enough to conduct services. The pubs have closed; the nearest shop is 16km away.

The next village up the valley, Kashle, is a ghost town, after the last resident left years ago; nearby Skipkovitza is home to just three people.

Valentine Todorov, 54, who runs a mobile shop visiting the villages close to the remote Serbian border, said: "Many young people have gone abroad. In the 70s this village numbered 500 but now there are only 17 people and the youngest is 70."

The population of the village is occasionally boosted by visitors, who return on holidays to maintain some connection with their heritage. Retired steelworker Lyudmila Bagneva, 55, visiting her family home over the New Year, favoured young people moving to Britain for a better life.

"I support them ... There's no employment here in the villages. There are only two jobs available. One is the mayor and the other is in the post office. Is it any wonder everyone has left?"

- Daily Telegraph UK

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