Multipolarity and Connectivity
Demographic Shifts and Geopolitical Changes in the Balkans

The demographic winter is jeopardizing the future of many nations, particularly in the West. In the Balkans, Europes historic powder keg, the empty cradle crisis could overlap with the great power competition, writes Emanuel Pietrobon, geopolitical analyst from Italy. 

The so-called demographic winter is slowly enveloping the world. For decades it has been overwhelming Europe, whose countries, without exception, have failed to remedy it and are now ageing at exceptional rates. 

Europes most populous countries – including Germany, France and Italy – are expected to feel the social and economic repercussions of the empty cradle crisis only in the distant future, but the matter has a more urgent dimension for the sparsely populated and poverty-plagued states of the Balkan peninsula. 

Here, in the powder keg 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 a lack of immigrants and of asymmetric natality trends recorded within some fast-growing ethnic minorities. 

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 societies and economies, are set to exacerbate the Balkans’ fragmentation and the local chapter of the great-power competition. 

Vanishing Peoples 

The United Nations, the World Bank and all European research institutions agree: the Balkans are being hit by the world’s worst depopulation crisis, with entire nations doomed to disappear if nothing is done to reverse, or at least to slow, the trend. The situation varies greatly across the peninsula although nowhere is population growth positive. For instance, Kosovo is close to, but still below, replacement level fertility, with a total fertility rate (TFR) of 1.5 children per woman in 2023. Greece has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates (1.26 in 2023) and it has been in demographic recession since 2011

Bulgaria, now dubbed 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, that is by 2100, Bulgaria’s current population of fewer than seven million may start feeling the threat of extinction; it is projected to shrink to only 4.8 million. As of today, no country in the world can compete with Bulgaria in terms of self-extinction, ethnic Bulgarians are vanishing at a rate of 60,000 people per year, that is 164 fewer per day.   

Romania’s population may be almost halved over the same period, decreasing from its current twenty million to twelve million; it could fall by more than half, according to other estimates, plummeting to between five and seven million. Moldova is set to follow the pattern of its sister, due to a combination of constantly-low fertility rate and mass emigration. The aforementioned factors, if not addressed in time, could lead the Moldovan population to drop by an astonishing 51.8% by 2100.

The Western Balkans are in no better shape: population declines are likely to persist in the former Yugoslavia, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. The former’s population is expected to fall by 2100, the latter is likely to lose 15% of its people by 2050 and a staggering 38% by 2100 (UN estimates).

Conflict and Leadership
The World in 2045: Dispersal of Power and Radical Threats
Andrey Sushentsov
Human civilization is moving from a century filled with military conflicts and sacrifices to a century that will be better described in terms of consumption, development and growth. But the backbone of this is a world that is well-guarded by modern weapons, kept in check by the mutual deterrence of the leading powers, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

New Identities

The identity of the Balkans is going to be altered profoundly, perhaps forever, by the demographic crisis. Indeed, the self-destructive instincts of some peoples, such as ethnic Romanians and ethnic Bulgarians, are set to benefit ethnic minorities, most notably Roma and Turks, whose child-bearing inclinations haven’t changed in the last decades and are failing to show any signs of decline or stabilisation. 

Accordingly, countries which are home to large Roma communities, like the aforementioned Romania and Bulgaria, are very likely to witness the disappearance of their own majority’s core historical identity in order to 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 millions. For instance, in Romania they could already number three million, although the 2011 population census estimated that there were only 600,000. Similarly, in Bulgaria they are estimated to number about 300,000 but there could be as many as a million. 

Roma people may become the majority ethnic group in Romania and Bulgaria – and the same trend is being recorded in Hungary, Slovakia and Serbia. Their increasing representation is due to several factors: a constant discrepancy in the fertility rates among Roma (more than 3 children per woman), Romanians (1.64) and Bulgarians (1.54), a higher tendency among working-age natives to emigrate, the aging processes, and so on. 

According to eminent Romanian demographer Vasile Ghețău, Roma are likely to make up 40% of the country’s total population by mid-century and could constitute the majority ethnic group within the following two decades. Over the same period, ethnic Romanians are expected to decrease numerically and to face a tremendous ageing process, with one-third of them estimated to be over 65. According to the demographer, this combination of factors makes an “ethnic revolution scenario” both inevitable and irreversible. 

The same scenario is going to take place in Bulgaria, but at a faster rate. The Sofia-based Centre for Demographic Policies forecasts a gloomy future for ethnic Bulgarians, which seem destined to be outnumbered by Roma and Turks by 2050 and to face extinction by 2100. 

The Geopolitical Challenge 

Demography is destiny, which is why it is of fundamental importance to be aware of what lies around the corner. The virtual disappearance of a country like Bulgaria may encourage regional powers to redirect their agendas elsewhere, but an ethnic transition could attract the attention of forward-thinking players interested in taking advantage of the paradigm shift. Whenever a rival country sees its majority become a minority, the appearance of socio-political tension is inevitable and hybrid war becomes desirable. 

Something suggests that the vanishing of Balkan peoples is unlikely to make the region less attractive for the world’s great powers. In the near 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 can be expected to grow. Some regional and global powers as well as non-state actors, from NGOs to terrorist organisations, might leverage on interethnic divisions to foment clashes, riots and instability to advance their geopolitical agendas, whereas others might prefer to invest in the future, channelling funds into developing relationships with minorities destined to become the majority.

The Roma question will be Europe’s next Balkan question. This is no political fiction.

Roma people have become increasingly politicised in Hungary and Romania, where they’re courted by American NGOs like the Open Society Foundations, and their humiliating living conditions are being exploited by the Jihadist International, as shown by the case of Bulgaria’s Islamic State-loyal Roma community of Pazardzhik

Whereas in Budapest and Bucharest the politicization of Roma people is being driven by powerful NGOs tied to the US (notably, George Soros even funded Roma-only scholarships), Sofia’s issue with radical Muslim Roma and radical Islam is an interesting case of geopolitics combined with terrorism. 

The Pazardzhik scandal broke out only in 2016, although Islamist terrorism first landed there in the late 1990s, and the Bulgarian authorities discovered that many leading characters of this state-within-a-state were actually linked to Turkey. Questions arose spontaneously, with politicians wondering whether Turkey was only providing Roma people with religious services and humanitarian cooperation or whether it was an attempt to actually weaponize the community in the context of a neo-Ottoman agenda against Bulgaria. 

As of today, questions about the Pazardzhik scandal have remained unanswered, but it is curious that Turkey remains the main financier of Roma communities throughout the Balkans, that the Turkish press is very interested in exploiting Roma topics, and that many of the so-called Roma royal families, even Christian ones, like the powerful Cioabas, are closely linked to the Turkey.

The geopolitics of demography 

The Balkans of the future will be profoundly different from what they have been historically and from what they are now. Some countries will experience demographic haemorrhages, while others will undergo deep ethnic and religious transformations. The activities of American NGOs and Turkey’s Roma agenda suggest that some powers have foreseen this trend, and that anyone who wants to have a say in the Balkans of the future must follow them.

What is occurring in the historic powder keg of Europe is the latest example of the strategic importance of demography, which has a long history of weaponization for geopolitical and hegemonic purposes. What Turkey and the United States are now respectively trying to do in Bulgaria and Hungary is no much different from what the 19th century-era United States did in Mexico, where Americans successfully weaponised demography to bring about an insurrection which eventually led to the Mexican-American war, or from other powers’ attempts to use ethnic minorities to destabilise rivals.

The main lesson of the long but forgotten history of the weaponization of demography is clear: never allow foreign players to influence diasporas and other non-native communities more than they should, especially if they are projected to evolve from minorities into majorities. The only way to protect a country from a dangerous future is to anticipate it. The only way to anticipate the future is to catch the emerging trends of the present.

Morality and Law
Russia, Serbia and the Balkans: Prospects
Vladimir Kršljanin
Cooperation as the main paradigm of the new world, in which Russia and China are leading with their spiritual and moral values, undoubtedly awaits triumph, since it has already shown itself to be more successful and since it gives everyone a chance. It contrasts with confrontation, as the destructive, morally and democratically defective paradigm of the world, ruled by the West, sowing injustice and human sacrifice, writes Vladimir Kršljanin, Vice President of the International Slavic Academy of Sciences, Education, Arts and Culture, High Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.