Updated Jul 21, 2018

Eastern Europe is shrinking before our eyes

The global population is expected to balloon to nearly 10 billion people by 2050, with Africa’s population doubling in that time and five of the world’s six inhabited continents growing significantly. That growth will pass Eastern Europe by. In fact, the region is rapidly shrinking.

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Data: United Nations World Population Prospects; Map: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

The big picture: According to the United Nations, the 10 fastest shrinking countries on earth are in Eastern Europe. Japan, perhaps the country with the most oft-analyzed demographic challenges, is 11th. Many of those countries are struggling economically, with aging populations, a lack of skilled labor and — in some cases — restrictive immigration policies.

The fastest-shrinking countries

From 2017 to 2050, using UN projections: Countries outside Eastern Europe in bold:

  • 1-5: Bulgaria (23% decrease), Latvia (22%), Moldova (19%), Ukraine (18%), Croatia (17%)
  • 6-10: Lithuania (17%), Romania (17%), Serbia (15%), Poland (15%), Hungary (15%)
  • 11-15: Japan (15%), Georgia (13%), Portugal (13%), Bosnia and Herzegovina (13%), Estonia (13%)
  • 16-20: Lebanon (11.0%), Greece (11%), South Korea (10%), Albania (9%), Belarus (9%)
Case study

Bulgaria’s population is expected to drop more precipitously than that of any other country on earth, declining by 1.7 million by 2050. That’s equivalent to the entire population of Sofia, the capital, and the metropolitan area surrounding it disappearing over the course of three decades.

Chief causes
  • Low birth rates: Total fertility rates range from 1.3 to 1.6 among the 10 fastest-shrinking countries, per the CIA Factbook. For reference, the U.S. rate is 1.9.
  • Departures: Millions of people have left Eastern Europe for wealthier Western European countries. 1 million Bulgarians live abroad, according to the Economist, 700,000 of them in other E.U. countries.
  • Low immigration: Germany’s birth rate is almost exactly the same as Bulgaria’s, but while Bulgaria’s net migration rate is negative, Germany is taking in more migrants than it is losing and as a result is shrinking far more slowly.
    • Paradoxically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, far-right anti-immigrant parties have fared best in areas with dwindling populations, and Eastern European countries have generally been unreceptive to refugees arriving in Europe. (Though, having reached Europe, those refugees are typically seeking settlement in wealthier countries.)
What it looks like

Per the Economist:

“This demographic catastrophe, concentrated in the countryside, finds its cruellest expression in Bulgaria’s neglected north-west, the poorest region of the poorest country in the European Union. Every year the nearby city of Vratsa, a former industrial hub fallen on hard times, shrinks by around 2,000 people. Employers say they cannot find skilled workers; locals say there is no work. People here are poorer, unhappier and likelier to leave than elsewhere in Bulgaria. Kalin Kamenov, Vratsa’s mayor, says that without investment and state support his town will be virtually extinct in ten years.”

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