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COVID returnees give Bulgaria hope of stemming the exodus

SOFIA: Nicko Ventsislav, 29, talks to a colleague at an office in Sofia. The year Bulgaria ended communist rule in 1990, the country’s nine million population shrank by about 200,000 – and has continued to drop each year since then, sliding to 7 million people in 2019. – AFP

SOFIA: Nicko Ventsislav is part of an unprecedented phenomenon: one of the six Bulgarians who chose to return home last year for everyone who left. The 29-year-old joins returning emigres who have been pushed back in part by coronavirus-induced economic downturns and job losses in their adopted countries, and pulled back in part by lower costs and a better lifestyle in the land of their birth.

In the search for a silver lining from the pandemic, that’s led some in Bulgaria to hope that the flood of returning emigrants may help stem the country’s chronic population decline. Bulgaria’s population began to fall in 1989, the year its communist regime collapsed. It peaked at around nine million and has since shrunk each year to seven million people by 2019, according to World Bank estimates.

Ventsislav was part of that drain, leaving the former Soviet bloc country and now-European Union member almost a decade ago. But after losing his job at Nice airport in southeastern France at the start of the pandemic, Ventsislav’s focus returned to his homeland. “On the 70th day of lockdown in France, I started to browse job adverts” back home, he said. He was lured by an offer from Telus International Bulgaria, a business process outsourcing company that targets potential returnees. They paid for his plane ticket and offered him 5,000 leva (2,550 euros, $3,040) to help him relocate.

Pandemic a ‘big boost’
Since 2017, Telus has brought back about 150 young Bulgarians, says General Manager Kristina Ivanova, adding that the pandemic gave their efforts a big boost. Even though life is getting back to normal across Europe, Ventsislav says he plans to “stay home”. “I have a permanent contract; I found an apartment, hobbies and entertainment are cheaper here so at the end of the month I have more money left than I would in France,” he says. Desislava Nikolova, a 38-year-old project manager at French sporting goods retailer Decathlon, has been teleworking since last spring and spending most of her time in Bulgaria.

“I get a (Western) European salary that I spend in Bulgaria where… prices are much lower than those in Europe. This is the ideal combination,” she says, while juggling work tasks on her laptop at a cafe in downtown Sofia. She says she decided to come back to spend more time with her family and friends, as Bulgaria was never subjected to a strict lockdown. “In France we couldn’t even go to the hairdresser’s, but here things haven’t closed at all,” she says.

‘Live in a bubble’
And even if she doesn’t return to Bulgaria permanently, she says she would love to be able to spend at least half the year in the country. “We live in a bubble in Bulgaria-easy access to the sea and the mountains, good balance between work and leisure,” says Hristo Boyadzhiev, chief of the Tuk-Tam (“Here-There”) non-profit group that helps returnees to reintegrate in Bulgaria.

Still, it’s not all plain sailing. Several people weighing up a return complained to AFP about red tape, corruption, bad management and workplace ethics. Others have grown used to more global lifestyles. After a year of teleworking from Sofia, Mariya Peykova, 32, plans to return soon to her finance job in Paris. “I miss the city with its bike lanes, its beauty and cosmopolitan character,” she says.

For Pascal Zhelezov, it was hard to re-adapt to the mindset he found on his return after 14 years in the United States. Zhelezov says he felt “astounded by the pessimism, even nihilism” he found among his compatriots, not to mention the widespread belief in conspiracy theories. Many of the returnees took part in anti-corruption protests that swept Bulgaria last year, decrying the perceived arrogance and venality of the political elite.

A recent report for the United Nations Population Fund mentions the opportunity for countries in the region to “retain at least some returnees” as a result of the pandemic, pointing to the value they bring in terms of “experience and connections to global networks and markets”. But Tomcho Tomov from the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce estimates that most of the pandemic returnees have already left again.

‘Bulgaria wants you’
“The majority of companies have failed to jump at this opportunity despite the labor shortage, because of the uncompetitive salaries,” he says. In an effort to maintain the momentum of returnees to Bulgaria, two television channels tell the success stories of those who have come home in the hope of inspiring others to follow suit. “Life abroad weighs you down: you make money, but you don’t have time to spend it,” says Petya Kertikova, who lived in the US before returning to host the TV show “The Returnees”.

A website created by two other TV anchors, “Bulgaria Wants You”, boasts of the country’s “lowest taxes and longest maternity leave in Europe”. And in spite of his reservations, Zhelezov says he “didn’t even hesitate in returning for good”. He’s now employed by Britain’s Omnipresent, a company that hires people for remote work. “In Bulgaria, people work to live,” he says. “They don’t live to work.” – AFP


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