Boryana Katsarova (Bulgaria): Lonely Bulgaria
Gallery offline – updating soon
Lonely Bulgaria is the first part of the long-term documentary photography project “Balkan Peninsula.” It is about Bulgaria, a small Balkan country which is also my native land.
This project is inspired by the sadness of – and my unwillingness to accept – the heavy social reality in my country. It is my personal fight against the poverty, the loneliness, and the depopulation of Bulgaria. Mainly, it is a project about the social situation in the urban areas in the country. It is a project about the people.
Bulgaria, situated in the eastern Balkans, has been undergoing a slow and painful transition to a market economy since the end of Communist rule, 10 November, 1989. Founded in 681, Bulgaria is one of the oldest states in Europe. The country became a Member State of the European Union on 1 January, 2007.
At the end of 1990, the Central Statistical Bureau recorded 8,989,172 people living in Bulgaria. Today, the population of the country is 7,600,000, nearly 2,500,000 of whom are retired persons. Approximately 1,100,000 of these retirees are subsisting on the minimum pension payment of 137 leva и 80 stotinki per month; about 70 euros and 66 cents. More than half of the nation lives on the edge of poverty.
According to a projection by the Population Reference Bureau, a nongovernmental organization in Washington, Bulgaria’s population will decline by 34 percent from 2005 to 2050, from 7.7 million to 5 million. The Bureau projects that the only country likely to lose more of its people during that span is Swaziland, where 38 percent of the population has HIV. For now, the population of this small Balkan country, my homeland, is still decreasing and growing older.
Officially, there are 5,047 populated villages and 255 cities in Bulgaria today. Of these, according to the Bulgarian National Statistical Institute, the number of the ghost villages in the country increased to 148 totally deserted villages in 2009, with an additional 1,388 villages of fewer than 100 inhabitants in 2010.
In a country where there were no wars, epidemics, earthquakes, or other disasters, Bulgaria’s social reality is sad and unacceptable. Most of the elder citizens I have met during my painful wanderings in the countryside shared from the bottoms of their hearts that they would rather prefer to die than to live in loneliness and poverty.
Before 1989, Bulgaria was arguably a land of economic equality. Almost no private initiative was allowed, due to the policy-line of the Communist regime, but the vast majority of the population was employed in the state owned collective farms, factories, mines, etc., all dutifully tended under Socialism. Large government funds were allocated toward free health care, free higher education, maternity and disability benefits, and pensions. Traditionally, even the poorest Bulgarians, the ethnic Roma, held jobs, received social security payments, and enjoyed a decent standard of living, particularly in rural areas. Bulgarian collective farms once exported vegetables and fruit to most of the Eastern bloc, but when the Soviet Union collapsed the market for Bulgaria’s produce went with it.
In a nation once famous for its agriculture, the sense of abandonment is strongest in the countryside. I love my native land, the mountains, the trees, the rivers, the people…
Once, Bulgaria was a place of plenty, with walnut trees, apples, and plums all cultivated in the state owned collective farms. Today, the trees are uprooted and the agriculture has faded away. During the last 20 years, most young people ran away from the Bulgarian rural areas, leaving behind everything and everybody. They went to the few big Bulgarian cities, or even abroad, with the sole purpose and hope – to integrate themselves into the new global economy; to find job and new life.
In the early ’90s, two-thirds of the Bulgarian population was urban. Today, decayed buildings and the elderly are the only remaining inhabitants of Bulgaria’s rural villages. They are the ghosts of the transition from socialism to democracy. In most of the cases those people are forgotten by everyone – relatives, friends, and even politics. Some of them believe that even God has forgotten them, but they continue to keep in their hearts the last thing that they have left – their hope.
After 1990 and before January 2007, when Bulgaria joined the EU, was a hard period during which different governments ruled the country. This period became the turning point toward the unending social problems and poverty in today’s Bulgaria. These governments, which failed in both their fight against the organized crime and the corruption and also to put well-known criminals and corrupt high-ranking officials behind bars, cost the EU newcomer several hundred million euros in lost aid.
According to the latest official news, Bulgaria is the poorest country in the Euro Zone. In 2008, the EU Observer wrote: “Bulgaria has the lowest purchasing power in the EU, but also in the region. The purchasing power of Bulgarian citizens is lower than the Macedonian, Serbian and Albanian. The cheapest labor force in the European Union is in Bulgaria.” The social situation today remains exactly as it was described in 2008. More than half of the Bulgarian population cannot be integrated into the living standard of the European Zone Countries.
In spite of it all, every Bulgarian lives with the belief that, with the support of the European Union, the Bulgarian government must determine to improve its social policies, and help the Bulgarians out of their poverty.