IF HELL is other people, then Ekaterina Svetulkova must be in paradise. She sits alone eating sunflower seeds on a stone bench in Banitsa, the village in north-west Bulgaria she has called home for 58 of her 82 years. Once upon a time, bakers churned out delectable loaves and famous actors visited to give performances that delighted the locals. Now, Ms Svetulkova sighs, “There is not a living soul here.” (Though there is a kitten dozing on her hand-knitted slippers.) With her children living elsewhere and few friends left, she would not know where to turn if she had an accident. That makes for “a scary sort of loneliness”, she says.

The UN projects that Bulgaria’s population will fall from 7.2m to 5.2m by 2050, making it the world’s fastest-shrinking country (the next nine are also in eastern Europe). This demographic catastrophe, concentrated in the countryside, finds its cruellest expression in Bulgaria’s neglected north-west, the poorest region of the poorest country in the European Union. Every year the nearby city of Vratsa, a former industrial hub fallen on hard times, shrinks by around 2,000 people. Employers say they cannot find skilled workers; locals say there is no work. People here are poorer, unhappier and likelier to leave than elsewhere in Bulgaria. Kalin Kamenov, Vratsa’s mayor, says that without investment and state support his town will be virtually extinct in ten years.

Bulgaria presents perhaps the most extreme case of the depopulation that is ravaging much of eastern Europe. The post-communist transition was particularly traumatic (and delayed) here; in the 1990s the fertility rate plummeted and hundreds of thousands of young people flocked to the richer, stabler countries of western Europe, leaving the older and less-skilled behind. Today over 1m Bulgarians live abroad, around 700,000 of them in the EU. Western European countries like Germany have older populations, but their wealth leaves them better placed to weather the fiscal implications of a declining workforce, and they are importing immigrants. In rapidly ageing Bulgaria, already Europe’s fifth-greyest country, nearly 60% of pensioners are below the government’s poverty line of 321 lev ($196) a month. “We have a rich-country problem, but we’re not a rich country,” says Georgi Angelov, an economist at the Open Society Institute in Sofia.

Governments have produced endless strategies to arrest the demographic decline. None has helped much. Speaking in booming Sofia, one of the few places in Bulgaria with a growing population, Valeri Simeonov, a deputy prime minister in charge of demographic policy, outlines his plans to plug labour shortages by attracting foreign workers, not least from neighbouring countries with Bulgarian minorities such as Ukraine or Moldova. Several thousand already work at the beaches and ski resorts during tourist seasons. Policies are being prepared to attract more people for longer. In eight months, Mr Simeonov boasts, the government has done more to improve the demographic outlook than all its predecessors.

Yet there is a catch. Mr Simeonov, who leads the far-right National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, says his hunt for talent does not extend to refugees, whom he dismisses as “adventurists” seeking to suck Europe’s welfare states dry. Thanks in part to a border fence manned by guards with a reputation for brutality, the refugees who poured out of Turkey in 2015-16 largely bypassed Bulgaria for Greece. That has not stopped Bulgaria’s politicians from whipping up anti-refugee hysteria. Rumen Radev, the Socialist president, vows to stop Bulgaria becoming “Europe’s migrant ghetto”. In 2016 Vratsa’s council banned refugee centres, though none existed or had even been proposed.

Some find irony in the hostility of depopulating eastern European countries to receiving refugees (an issue that now falls to Bulgaria to resolve, as it takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU’s ministerial meetings). Others see a clear political logic. For Bulgarians on the sharp edge of depopulation, writes Ivan Krastev, a political scientist, “the arrival of migrants signals their exit from history”. Far-right parties are not particularly strong in Bulgaria, but perform best in areas of decline. And Bulgaria is not interested in adding to its integration troubles, says Mr Simeonov, when it has enough difficulties with its own “gypsy refugees” (the language is decorous; in 2014 Mr Simeonov dismissed Bulgaria’s Roma as “arrogant, ferocious anthropoids”).

Hope I die before I get old

The refugee question is to some degree a red herring; few would wish to stay in a hostile, low-wage country to which they have no links when richer ones are so close. Attracting workers from closer to home seems a better bet. So does enticing émigrés back. In recent years emigration has slowed and more Bulgarians are returning, although because of its low birth rate—in part the consequence of the earlier exodus of youngsters—the country is still losing the equivalent of Vratsa’s population of 50,000 every year.

Optimists look to well-run Estonia which, having lost 17% of its population since its liberation from Soviet rule, has lately enjoyed a small net inflow. Poland, which has taken in hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to service its booming economy, is an alternative model, but also a rival. Bulgaria is doing well—the employment rate is higher than ever, and the public finances are sound—but so are its richer neighbours. Corruption (Bulgaria is rated the worst country in the EU by Transparency International), red tape, bad schools and a lingering stench of gangsterism still mar it in the eyes of foreign investors. And even if those returning can help revitalise Bulgaria’s economy, as they have in former countries of emigration like Ireland, they are unlikely to reverse the demographic damage. Bulgaria’s prospects do look a bit brighter than they have for a while, and its notoriously morose people have noticed: last month a poll found a majority expressing optimism for the first time in two decades. But in future there will be far fewer Bulgarians to share this good cheer.