MOST EUROPEAN countries will carry out a census in 2021, and for many of them the results will be easy to predict. It is a different matter in the Balkans.

Ever since the fall of communism and the end of the bloody Yugoslav wars that followed, people in the Balkan region have been having fewer children and many people have been emigrating. This exodus has been aided by labour-hungry parts of Europe like Germany making it easier for citizens of non-EU countries to get work permits. The fact that no one knows how many have gone and how many remain is causing problems for the Balkan countries’ planners.

North Macedonia has not had a census since 2002. Since then its statistical office has dutifully been making projections based on the country that it used to be. The statisticians estimate that there are 2.08m people in North Macedonia—but the real figure could be as low as 1.5m. In some countries, such as Bulgaria, the figures are more up to date, but whether the numbers are reliable or not, the trends are the same. The combination of emigration and low birth rates means that these societies are ageing and, with no inward migration, their populations are shrinking.

In 1989 there were 8.9m Bulgarians; now there are only 6.9m. Three decades ago Serbia (not including Kosovo) had 7.8m people; today it might have 6.9m. There used to be 23.2m people in Romania, but in 2020 they were estimated to number 19.4m. Moldova, which will not hold a census until 2023, may have lost a third of its population, currently about 2.7m, since the end of communist rule.

As for births, Bosnian women have a fertility rate of 1.26, Albanian women of 1.37—some of the lowest in the world, and far below the replacement level of 2.1. Other countries, such as Bulgaria, where the rate is 1.56, are closer to the EU average of 1.55, though without immigration that is not enough to stop the population shrinking. Economic worries as a result of the coronavirus pandemic mean that women are likely to have even less babies now than ever before.

The censuses in 2021 should provide governments with the reliable data they need to plan for everything from kindergartens to pensions, as the better-educated emigrate and more of the poorly educated and the elderly are left behind. But whatever the precise numbers, the outlook is not bright. Projections by statisticians at both the UN and the EU suggest that by 2050 Bulgaria will have lost 39% of its population since 1989, while Bosnia will have lost 37%, Romania 31%, Serbia and Croatia 24% and Albania 25%.

Such large changes will bring big social and economic consequences. To take one early example, unemployment used to be a problem across the region. Labour shortages are now a bigger worry.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition of The World in 2021 under the headline “Balkan shrinkage”

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