Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serbia: Bulgarian Enclave Dies Quiet Death

With no jobs and no prospects, youngsters are fleeing the border town of Bosilegrad in droves.
By Nikola Lazic

In the little border town of Bosilegrad, not far from the frontier with Bulgaria, it is increasingly hard to spot young people on the streets.

Most residents are elderly now as the youngsters leave town after completing secondary school.

“Girls take advantage of each and every opportunity to flee and marry in other cities and towns,” lamented Ivan Nikolov, president of Bulgarian Minority Cultural Information Centre, KIC. “We have many bachelors here.”

In theory, Bosilegrad has a great deal going for it. Only a few miles from Vlasina Lake, the biggest artificial lake in Serbia, the roads around town lead through some of Serbia’s most spectacular scenery.

In any other country, it would probably have been put under state protection or turned into a national park.

But in Serbia, the only response of the authorities is neglect. The municipality is now among the least developed communities in the country.

The town’s streets provide a startling contrast to the lush nature just beyond the town. As visitors drive in, the natural beauty gives way to vistas of old, dilapidated houses.

A small river meanders through the town, but its banks resemble a rubbish dump, and are mainly used by stray dogs and abandoned cats rather than children playing.

The air of apathy conveyed by the peeling infrastructure is reflected in the town’s politics. Although ethnic Bulgarians make up 90 per cent of the population, and only about 20 Serbian families live in the town, right-wing Serbian parties dominate the local administration.

In the last two local elections, the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, headed by Serbia’s prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, won most votes, alongside the hard-line nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, whose president, Vojislav Seselj, is on trial for war crimes in The Hague.

By contrast, the Democratic Party of Bulgarians in Yugoslavia, DPBY, fizzled out in the mid-1990s, having failed to attract significant support.

Analysts say the main problem facing the town is chronic economic under-development.

All its important local institutions fit easily into the 100 metre long high street, including shops, cafés, the health centre, the police station, the cultural centre and the Bulgarian Minority Cultural Information Centre, Caribrod.

Statistically, Bosilegrad is one of Serbia’s smallest municipalities, with only around 9,800 inhabitants. Even more strikingly, almost 85 per cent of those fit for work are jobless.

The only industry is a small private textile workshop, which churns out socks and stockings and employs 39 people. The town’s major employers, such as the large textile and pharmaceutical plants, closed long ago.

The public transport company Autotransport, which links the area to the rest of the country, is socially-owned and is about to declare bankruptcy.

“Now we don't even have many buses,” one of the drivers said. “The police fine us because our vehicles don't meet the regulations. Only those who have to travel with us now.”

The driver had not received wages for months but has no option except to carry on. “I can't leave Autotransport, because I can't find a job elsewhere,” he said.

Ivan Nikolov, president of the Bulgarian Minority Cultural Information Centre, KIC, said the only workers receiving regular salaries were state employees, in the police, judiciary, health service and schools. But they make up only 15 per cent of the working-age population.

With so much time on the hands of so many locals, the cafés and restaurants do good business.

“The factories are shut, nothing's working and only elderly people have remained,” sighed Georgi Ciper, owner of a photography shop. “The young have gone abroad, seeking a better life.”

Those that remain scratch a living as best they can. Alenka Ljubovna brings milk to town every day from the village of Bozic, ten kilometres away. “My husband and I live off our two cows,” she said.

“We’ve planted vegetables in the yard so that we don't have to spend money at the greengrocers.”

With no new, large-scale investments in sight, there are few signs that life is about to improve in this forgotten corner of Serbia. The funds that the government has allocated for south Serbia have failed to reach Bosilegrad.

The town is only a few kilometres from the Ribarci border crossing with Bulgaria, but benefits little from its proximity as the absence of customs facilities means that most frontier traffic passes through Dimitrovgrad, to the south.

The miserable economic outlook may help to explain why there is so little ethnic tension in to town. With everyone concentrating on survival, there is little energy left over for agitation about Bulgarian rights.

There is so little interest in learning Bulgarian at school that when the education ministry offered to set up Bulgarian-language primary schools, 60 parents signed a protest petition saying they were content for children to learn in Serbian.

“Politics and political parties don’t matter now,” said Ciper. “What’s important is that people have something to eat and to live on.”

“In this town, getting a steady job is like winning the lottery,” said one 23-year-old who lives with her parents.

“What I'd love best would be to get married and get away.”

Nikola Lazic works for the weekly Novine Vranjske.

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