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‘This village used to be full of people’: Serbia hit by shrinking population

The Serbian government says the Balkan country is effectively losing a town each year.

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An abandoned house in the village of Blagojev Kamen, Serbia (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

An abandoned house in the village of Blagojev Kamen, Serbia (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

An abandoned house in the village of Blagojev Kamen, Serbia (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

Near-empty villages with abandoned, crumbling houses dot the landscape across Serbia, as the country’s shrinking population raises acute questions over the economic wellbeing of the country.

The decline is happening so fast it is considered a national emergency and the United Nations has stepped in to help.

Uros Trainovic remembers when his small mining village in eastern Serbia was a vibrant home to 200 families and had a school of its own, a doctor and a shop.

Now, 60-odd years later, Blagojev Kamen is a ghost village with just eight residents.

Uros Trainovic in front of his house in the village of Blagojev Kamen, Serbia
Uros Trainovic in front of his house in the village of Blagojev Kamen (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

Its transformation is not unique in a country that experienced years of war and sanctions in the 1990s following the break-up of Yugoslavia.

In a twist of historical irony, one of the causes behind those years of war was the idea of creating a Greater Serbia out of the ashes of the former Yugoslavia.

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

“It is such a pity and so sad that everybody left … now there are only a few of us and there are no young people any more.”

However they are measured, the numbers look stark.

According to the World Bank, Serbia’s population of just below seven million is projected to fall to 5.8 million by 2050.

That would represent a 25% fall since 1990.

An abandoned house in the village of Blagojev Kamen, Serbia
An abandoned house in Blagojev Kamen (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

The Serbian government says the Balkan country is effectively losing a town each year, and that as many as 18 municipalities have fewer than 10,000 people, adding: “We are 103 people less each day.”

Population changes are a fact of life across Europe, but the problem is acutely different in Central and Eastern Europe, where the low fertility rates that are commonplace in developed countries combine with high migration rates and low immigration more akin to developing nations.

The economic knock-on effects on a country striving to join the European Union are evident and amount to billions of pounds in the short term.

In the longer run, there are also costs related to the fact that a smaller population of working age will have to contribute more to support the ranks of those of pensionable age.

The UN Development Programme and the UN Population Fund have assembled a group of seven international experts of different backgrounds and specialities to help out.

The members visited Serbia last month for a fact-finding mission.

An abandoned factory near the town of Kucevo, Serbia
An abandoned factory near the town of Kucevo, Serbia (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

Wolfgang Lutz, an Austrian expert in demographics at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), said the main problem is related to the make-up of those leaving Serbia rather than the overall population decline.

“We see that it tends to be the better educated, the more highly skilled, the more highly motivated, mobile people who are leaving and that is certainly a drain of the human capital,” he said.

Reflecting the decades of crisis are villages such as Blagojev Kamen.

It had flourished when a nearby gold mine kept the area alive before and after the Second World War, but its fortunes have sunk as the mine closed down in the mid-1990s.

Mr Trainovic said there are still gold and other minerals in the mine but that it needs investment and hard work.

“One of my sons is in Germany and the other one is in Austria,” he said.

“They visit often but they have nothing to return to.”

A dilapidated bridge close to an abandoned factory is seen near the town of Kucevo, Serbia
A dilapidated bridge near Kucevo (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

Serbia’s government has tried to buck the trend, offering financial benefits for couples with multiple children, state-backed IVF, the renovation of schools and daycare centres, aid to families in rural areas or backing for businesses in villages.

Ruth Finkelstein, executive director at the Brookdale Centre for Healthy Ageing and professor of urban public health at Hunter College/CUNY, said Serbia should also strive to find a role for its growing elderly population.

“Room after room, people focus only on the young people,” she said.

It is not only Serbia that is worried.

Serbia’s neighbour Croatia, which currently holds the European Union’s rotating six-month presidency, has made the “pressing issue of demographic challenges” a priority.

Croatia’s rural areas have been emptying at an alarming rate while more than 15% of Croatia’s 4.2 million people are living and working abroad.

Bulgaria and Ukraine are two others enduring population declines.

A sign reading in Serbian 'House for sale' in the village of Blagojev Kamen, Serbia
A sign reading ‘House for sale’ in Blagojev Kamen (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

Stjepan Sterc, a prominent Croatian demography expert, thinks the efforts to deal with the problems so far across the Balkans are not enough and that the tax system has to be more focused on reversing the trends.

“Demography should be recognised as the essence of economic development so that the most important encouragement tool is directed toward it,” he said.

Mr Lutz, who directs the World Population Programme for the IIASA, said small countries can have a competitive advantage.

“I’ve seen a lot of pessimism, I’ve seen a lot of panic even about what is happening,” he said.

“The challenge is to convert this … into some action that is positive, making this a more revitalised, more vibrant society again, that looks into the future.”

PA