As European Barriers Fall, Bulgarians Feel West’s Tug

Views on BG | December 28, 2013, Saturday // 11:06|  views

The NYT has cited a common local joke: "There are two ways out of Bulgaria's problems: Terminal 1 and Terminal 2," referring to the two terminals at Sofia's airport. File photo

New York Times


SOFIA, Bulgaria — Ervin Ivanov, a fourth-year medical student, is sure he'll leave Bulgaria, and he is sure that most of his classmates will too.

"Probably most of them are thinking of working in other countries, working in European countries, but not in Bulgaria, definitely," Mr. Ivanov, 22, said while standing in the hallway of a Soviet-era medical school here.

Even though he is debt-free because the state subsidizes much of the cost of education, he dreams of practicing in Switzerland or Germany because those countries offer far higher pay and more advanced and specialized medical systems.

"I think of myself as European," said Mr. Ivanov, an aspiring oncologist.

On the first day of 2014, nine European Union states, including Germany, France, the Netherlands and Britain, will lift labor restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians. But already, skilled and even many unskilled laborers have found many ways to work in those countries. A look at income data shows why Bulgarians and Romanians might continue to seek greener pastures.

The wealthiest one-fifth of society in Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the European Union in 2007, have a lower median income than the poorest one-fifth of society in Britain, France, Germany or other wealthy European states, according to a review of income data obtained from Eurostat, the statistics office.

Obviously, this does not necessarily mean that being poor in Britain, France or Germany is better than being in the top income bracket in Bulgaria or Romania: The cost of living is vastly lower in Sofia than in London.

But the lure of higher pay cannot be ignored when barriers come down, particularly as Bulgaria's unemployment has increased sharply over the last half-decade. After bottoming out around 6 percent at the end of 2008, it has steadily risen to 13.2 percent in October.

Interviews in December with residents of Sofia, Bulgaria's capital, revealed widespread frustrations with the succession of governments, corruption and the country's inability to shake off its Soviet roots. It has also been unable to lift itself from being Europe's poorest nation. (Bulgaria's output, per capita, is last among the European Union's 28 states, according to data from the International Monetary Fund.)

A common joke here goes like this: "There are two ways out of Bulgaria's problems: Terminal 1 and Terminal 2," referring to the two terminals at Sofia's airport.

Despite that, many said they wanted to stay home, in part because joining the European Union brought a measure of hope. Some mentioned the unrest in Ukraine as a cautionary tale.

Polina Naydenova, 24, who is studying international law, said she wanted to stay where she had "my friends, my family and my life." She hopes she will "somehow have the chance to change things constructively" in her native country. Another law student, Petar Kyosev, 24, said he hoped to move to Amsterdam, but also would eventually return. "I'm trying to do my best to stay here, but my country is not doing its best to make me stay," he said.

Liliya Vlaeva, 26, an economics student, said she would stay. "The living standard here in Bulgaria is not so high as in Great Britain, in London for example," she said. "The salaries for young people are enough, in my opinion, to live well — not as rich people, but to live O.K."

But she said many of her classmates who study abroad opt not to return. "I know about 10 or 15 people from the last year that did this, in different countries," she said. "They are people who are not coming back, but it is a personal decision."

Bulgaria also has a large and often impoverished minority of Roma, or Gypsies. "I don't see any hope in the coming 20 years; the only way is working abroad," said Minko Angelov, 57, a Rom who was laid off at a local Coca-Cola bottler, speaking outside a state employment center. Since he speaks only Bulgarian and Russian, he is reluctant to travel through Europe. "The language is a big problem," he said.

The pending rule change has set off alarm particularly in Britain, which was flooded with Polish immigrants over the last decade. The circumstances are not entirely parallel. In 2004, Britain threw open its borders to the Poles and also altered its work rules to make it easier to get employment.

This time, nine countries are easing their work rulessimultaneously because of European rules, but their borders have already been open to visiting Bulgarians and Romanians.

Projections range widely, suggesting nobody really knows what will happen after the rules change. On one extreme is a recent claim by the right-wing Democracy Institute, based in Washington and London, which predicted at least 385,000 new migrants from Bulgaria and Romania would come to Britain over the next five years, though the group kept its methodology secret. By contrast, the Bulgarian and Romanian governments have said there will be no perceptible change in emigration.

Bulgarian officials argue that there have been ways for workers to find jobs in Europe already. "I don't think January 1 is a very bad day in which we'll have thousands and thousands of people leaving Bulgaria. This will not happen," said Petar Chobanov, Bulgaria's finance minister.

"If someone wants to leave, they already left," he said.

Daniel Kalinov, executive director of a private employment agency in Sofia that helps people find work abroad, agreed. He said most of the people who sought access to the labor market, even unskilled workers, could find ways through the red tape of the existing system. And the number of applications he has received ahead of the rule change has not increased. "It's not going to be buses coming in, pouring over and congesting the country," he said of Britain.

Unconvinced, the British government recently made it harder for immigrants to receive state benefits. "By addressing the factors that drive up immigration, we are doing everything within our power to discourage immigration from the European Union," Mark Harper, the immigration minister, said in a statement.

Perhaps most worrisome for Bulgaria is the brain drain of its doctors. "They simply go, and this is very, very bad news," said Dr. Marin Marinov, the head of the Medical University of Sofia's medicine department. He said past surveys showed about two-thirds of the school's graduates planned to leave the country.

"You educate these people for six years, you invest money, invest intellectual potential, you invest everything you have to teach them and to make them good doctors," he said, "and they disappear afterward."

Finding frustrated people in this city is not hard. Daily demonstrations have been taking place since the current Socialist-led government made an abortive attempt at appointing a loyalist media mogul as security minister this past summer. Among the protesters outside the Parliament building on a chilly December morning were two 19-year-olds, Emil Nikolov and Teodora Shalvardjieva. They wore hoodies; he blue, she pink. He also had a small yellow button with a black fist on it. She held a megaphone at her side.

"I could've gone to France to study, but I decided to stay here," Ms. Shalvardjieva said. "If it doesn't change eventually, maybe one day I'm going to be forced to go somewhere else."

"We have no future here. We cannot have a nice job here in this country," Mr. Nikolov said. "This is why all the young people from Bulgaria go."

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Tags: European Union, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Britain, labor restrictions, Bulgarians, Romanians, Bulgaria, Romania, sofia, corruption, poor, income


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