Source AP ©

Bulgaria has lowest population growth in Europe, statistics institute says

Bulgaria's population has dropped by 1 million to 7.7 million since the end of communist rule in 1989, a nearly catastrophic decrease in such a small country.

The Balkan state, which joined the European Union in January, has the lowest population growth rate in the 27-nation bloc, according to figures released by the National Statistics Institute on Friday.

If the trend of emigration and a high mortality rate continues, Bulgaria could lose a third of its population in a few decades' time, experts said. According to an analysis by the Washington D.C.-based Population Reference Bureau, published earlier this year, Bulgaria's population will decline by 34 percent from 2005 to 2050, falling to 5 million people.

Despite a steady economic growth of more than 5 percent in the last years, living standards in Bulgaria remain low. The average monthly salary is the equivalent of EUR180 (US$240), and 9 percent of the work force is unemployed, prompting many to seek jobs in other European Union countries.

The country's natural growth rate - the difference between the number of births and the number of deaths per 1,000 annually - stood at minus 5.1 per 1,000 in 2006, the lowest in Europe.

Bulgaria's birth rate decreased from 12.1 per 1,000 in 1990 to 9.6 in the same year - comparable to the rate in Greece, Hungary and Italy. But the mortality rate stood far above the European average at 14.7 per 1,000 in 2006, compared to 8.4 in France and 6.6 in Ireland.

Some 113,438 deaths were recorded in 2006, compared to only 73,978 births.

The current life expectancy is approximately 69 years for men and 76 for women, while the average age of the population stood at 41.4 years.