Nobody seems to understand the long-term implications of the phenomenon known as the “demographic winter”, whose impact will be particularly shocking in the ageing Europe. The most populous countries – like Germany, France and Italy – are expected to feel the social and economic repercussions of the crisis of empty cribs only in the distant future, but the matter has a more urgent dimension for the population-scarce and poverty-plagued states of the Balkan peninsula.

Here, in the powderkeg of Europe, the demographic winter will hit hard – even more than elsewhere – due to a combination of extremely low fertility, high rates of emigration, widespread poverty and fast ageing rates, against the background of the lack of immigrants and asymmetric natality trends recorded within some ethnic minorities with their fast growth.

Whereas some countries may be doomed to eventually disappear entirely (Moldova and Serbia), others are likely to experience permanent changes in terms of ethnic composition (Romania) and, possibly, even religious affiliation (Bulgaria). Such epoch-making changes, far from impacting solely on society and economics, are set to increase the Balkans’ fragmentation and their relevance to the ongoing great-power competition.

Vanishing Peoples

The United Nations, the World Bank and virtually all European research institutions agree: the Balkans are being hit by the world’s worst depopulation crisis and entire nations may disappear if nothing is done to reverse – or at least to slow – the trend. The situation varies greatly across the peninsula although nowhere the population growth is positive, for instance Kosovo is close to – but still below – the replacement level fertility (2 children per woman, 2017) while Greece records one of the world-lowest fertility rates (1.4 children per woman, 2017) and it has been in demographic recession since 2011.

Bulgaria, now dubbed as the planet’s fastest-shrinking country, lost about two million people between 1989 and 2019 and the overall population is set to record a 15% resizing by 2050. By the end of the century – by 2100 – Bulgaria’s current population of almost seven million may start feeling the threat of extinction by reaching an estimated level of only 4.8 million. The cause behind the world’s fastest-shrinking country is easy to understand: ethnic Bulgarians are vanishing at a rate of 60,000 less Bulgarians per year, that is 164 fewer per day.

Romania’s population may be almost halved over the same period, decreasing from the current twenty million to twelve million, or it could more than halve according to other estimates, reaching the dramatic level of five to seven million. Moldova is set to follow the pattern of its neighbor, due to both the constantly-low fertility rate and for the “exodus of its citizens to find work abroad,” two unlikely-to-be-solved factors which eventually might lead the population “to drop by 51.8% by 2100”.

The Western Balkans are in no better situation: population declines are likely to persist in the former Yugoslavia, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. The former’s population is to be cut by 2100, the latter is to record a 15% resizing by 2050 and a staggering 38% by 2100 (UN estimates).

New Identities

The Balkans’ identity is going to be rewritten deeply and forever by this ongoing demographic crisis. Indeed, the self-extinctive trends of some peoples such as ethnic Romanians and ethnic Bulgarians, is set to benefit ethnic minorities, most notably Romas and Turks, whose child-bearing propensions haven’t changed in the last decades and are not showing yet signs of decline or stabilization.

Accordingly, countries hosting large Roma communities, like the above-mentioned Romania and Bulgaria, will witness the disappearance of their own majority’s core historical identity and become fully multinational and multi-ethnic states.

Demographers agree: the true size of Roma communities is not captured by the population censuses and they already number in the order of millions. For instance, in Romania they could be up to three million although the 2011 population census estimated they were about 600,000. Similarly, in Bulgaria they could be more than one million against an estimated size of about 300,000.

Roma people may become the major ethnic group in Romania and Bulgaria – and the same trend is being recorded in Hungary, Slovakia and Serbia – because of the concatenation of several factors: constant discrepancy in the fertility rates among Romas (more than 3 children per woman), Romanians (1,64) and Bulgarians (1,54), higher tendency of working-age natives to emigrate, aging processes, and so on.

According to eminent Romanian demographer Vasile Gheţău, Roma people are likely to make up 40% of the country’s total population by the mid-century and they could turn into the major ethnic group in the next two decades. Over the same period, ethnic Romanians are to decrease numerically and to face a tremendous ageing process – one-third of them are expected to be over-65 in ten years – two factors contributing to make the “ethnic revolution” as inevitable as irreversible.

The same scenario is going to take place in Bulgaria, but faster and even more profoundly due to the difference in population. Sofia-based Center for Demographic Policies forecasts a gloomy future for ethnic Bulgarians, destined to be overturned by Romas and Turks by 2050 and to be close to extinction by 2100.

The Geopolitical Challenge

Demographics is geopolitics, that’s why is of fundamental importance to have awareness of what lies beyond the horizon. The disappearance of a country, like Moldova, may encourage regional powers to redirect their agendas elsewhere, but ethnic transitions could attract the attention of forward-thinking players interested in taking advantage of the paradigm shift.

Something suggests that the vanishing of Balkan peoples is unlikely to make the region more stable. In the next future there will be fewer inhabitants, true, but the ethnic – and religious – composition will be much more variegated and heterogeneous, accordingly the already-existing fragmentation and the ever-present tensions along the civilizational fault lines are to grow. External players may leverage interethnic divisions to foment clashes, riots and instability that serves their ulterior geopolitical agendas.

Roma people are increasingly politicized in Hungary and Romania, and their life conditions (segregation, widespread poverty, etc) made them easily exploitable by the Jihadist International as shown by the case of Bulgaria’s Islamist State-loyal Roma community of Pazardzhik. Whereas in Budapest and Bucharest the politicization of Roma people is being driven by powerful NGOs, Sofia’s issue with Roma and radical Islam is much more complex and poses a concrete risk in terms of national security.

In fact, police investigations have uncovered ties between Bulgarian Roma want-to-be jihadists and Muslim Brotherhood-linked entities based in Western Europe. The scandal in the Bulgarian city of Pazardzhik was later used by the government to start a reform of Bulgarian Islam and, eloquently, to oust Turkey from the country’s mosques and cultural centers. The question arises spontaneously: was Turkey actually playing a role within that community and of what kind? The new Balkan wars may be beyond the corner and the fault lies with the demographic crisis.