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Behind Bulgaria's Troubles: Exodus of Educated

Weak economy that drove youths to push ex-Communists for election also pushes many educated to flee country

Like many young, educated Bulgarians, Maria Spirova is in a bind.

Ms. Spirova, who graduated last year from Bulgaria's elite American University, would like to stay in her native country and start her career. But the current economic and social crisis has made that almost impossible.

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"The situation was so bad when I graduated that I decided to pursue graduate studies abroad, hoping the situation would stabilize while I was gone," says Spirova, who will finish a master's degree at Budapest-based Central European University next year. "But now it's worse than it was under communism. Salaries are so low you can barely survive."

Bulgaria's ruling Socialist Party announced Tuesday that it was agreeing to elections in April, almost two years earlier than originally scheduled. The former Communists are widely blamed for the country's severe economic crisis, which drove tens of thousands of students onto the streets in protest.

But while the new elections may signal the end to a month of protests, it may be some time before the economy is strong enough to keep young, educated professionals from leaving the country in search of opportunities abroad. Estimates of the number who have fled run as high as 300,000 - a significant sum in a country with a population of only 8.4 million.

Currently, average monthly wages in Bulgaria are less than $10, and the national currency, the lev, has fallen fivefold against the dollar since Jan.1.

"The impact of this 'brain drain' is absolutely tremendous," says James Derleth, a Bulgaria specialist at the University of the Pacific's School of International Studies in Stockton, Calif. "They're the best and brightest - the ones with the skills and ambition to turn things around here - and they're leaving in droves."

Brain drain has affected countries across Central and Eastern Europe. As salaries and living standards collapse in their own countries, those with the skills and mobility to seek their fortunes in the West depart. The poorer the country, the greater the incentive to leave. In Bulgaria, patients already report declining standards at understaffed hospitals, while international firms and organizations operating in Sofia report increasing difficulties in finding skilled employees.

"We want to fire our Bulgarian office director, but we can't find anybody to replace her," says an official from an international organization active in Bulgaria.

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"There's still a sufficient number of competent, skilled people available relative to the number of foreign firms operating here," says Mark Thomas, a British businessman who runs a successful travel agency in Sofia. "But the number of firms is very small and diminishing rapidly. If they return, they may have trouble finding people to hire."

Part of the problem is that Bulgaria's unreformed Soviet-style university system is still churning out large numbers of technicians, agronomists, and engineers to work in now-bankrupt state-owned industrial and agricultural enterprises. At the same time, there's a critical shortage of labor skilled in business administration, computer science, law, journalism, and other fields. "We have professionals, but often in the wrong fields," laments Nikolay Petrov of the Sofia-based financial weekly 168 Chasa. "That's why you can see qualified engineers and physicists selling [clothes] from street kiosks."

Even those who have secured competitive, well-paying jobs are tempted to leave the country for greener pastures. Like Spirova, Varbin Staykov graduated last year from the American University. Mr. Staykov's business administration degree got a warm reception at Deloitte & Touche, the international accounting firm where he now works.

"Lots of my classmates have jobs with foreign firms here in Sofia, and it pays well by local standards," he says. "But we all see that people doing our jobs at the Vienna, New York, or Milan office are paid four, five, six times what we are.... Many of my friends are really tempted to leave Bulgaria for that reason."

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