While much of it is paradise for tourists, it is much harder to actually live and work in the Balkans. The region, comprising Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia, is described as being in “critical demographic decline” which will have “far-reaching social and political consequences”.
Croatia’s President, Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, speaks frequently of the country’s dire demography, calling it a “battle for existence”, and it often dominates the country's news cycle.
The European Union, and the subsequent opening of the labour market, led to millions leaving in search of higher wages and a higher standard of living than they could achieve in their own countries. For instance, in 2018, 21.3 percent of working age Romanians resided abroad, followed by Croatia (15.4 percent), Lithuania (14.5 percent), Portugal (13.6 percent) and Bulgaria (13.3 percent).
An in-depth analysis by Tim Judah, a correspondent of The Economist, discusses some of the reasons for both mass emigration and low fertility. He comments that high emigration as a result of a poorer population in search of better work did not matter so much when women were still having six or seven children, but fertility has since fallen significantly:
…while Western countries compensate for falling birth rates and emigration with immigration, relatively few people immigrate to Balkan countries.
…Where they can, countries give allowances to women and families with more children but there is no evidence, at least yet, that any of this can persuade them to have more children.
Poland is an example of an Eastern European country that has been successful in boosting its numbers by accepting immigration from Ukraine.
There is also some economic hope in the Balkan region: Cluj in Transylvania is attracting people from other parts of Romania and abroad because of its successful knowledge economy and IT industry.
According to Judah, if cities like Cluj could be replicated and improved living standards achieved throughout the Balkans the situation could be very different.
If the Balkans takes up the challenge, can it both lure more of its distant citizens home again and boost birth rates?