The Balkans used to be the powder keg of Europe, the fault line between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire, the sparring ground for Russia and Austria-Hungary; the killing fields of Milosovic. Nowadays however, the fire seems to have gone out of the Balkans.
Instead, the peninsula is sloping into demographic stagnation and decline brought about by too few babies and too much migration to greener pastures of the North and West.
As The Economist reports, the region has low fertility rates, even for Europe. Bosnian women have an average of 1.3 children, while Croatians have 1.4. Even the Kosovars, who have the highest total fertility rate in the region (at 2.0) have been watching this number shrink for years.
And many of the children that are born in the Balkans tend to grow up and move elsewhere. Cheap transport and the ease of travelling within the EU (especially for Croatians, Romanians and Bulgarians) means that emigrating for work is much simpler than it used to be.
For example, 50,000 people leave Serbia each year. Of those that flow back the other way and come back home, the vast majority are pensioners who spent their working lives in Western Europe. And the children of these Serbian pensioners don’t come back with their parents. By the end of next year, Serbia will probably have more pensioners than working-aged people.
This makes the Balkans different from other low-fertility European countries. While Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain have low birth rates, these countries also attract a large number of immigrants. Poland has a low fertility rate and sees large numbers of its young people head West, but more than 1m Ukrainians have filled gaps left in the labour market. The Balkan peninsula does not have a Ukraine to fill its gaps.
And so, in the next few years the Balkans will slowly empty. By the middle of this century, some countries like Montenegro and Kosovo will have shrunk, albeit modestly – by three and 11 per cent respectively. But Serbia, Croatia and Albania will see their populations drop by a quarter and Romania’s by nearly a third. Bosnia and Bulgaria will only be 60 per cent their current size, while in 30 years, Moldova’s population will have halved.
The erstwhile powder keg of Europe is in the process of being drained. It is another corner of Europe that will be older and sparser. As the Balkans go, the rest of Europe will follow. And perhaps the rest of the world will follow.