Barents meets Balkans

The BarentsObserver compared two major border regions based on social and economic data from Patchwork Barents and Patchwork Balkan.

How come that the Barents and the Balkan regions have nearly the same average life expectancy, but their GDPs are dramatically different? BarentsObserver compares two border regions trying to find an answer.


Why should we care about border regions? Because they represent a unique example of how people live – a cross section of their differences and similarities.

Border regions can give us a better understanding of countries’ social and economic developments.They can tell the stories of a musher in Finnish Lapland, speaking fluently Russian, or a grape grower in Southeast Bulgaria, close to the Turkish border. Living close to a national border affects the way people interact with each other – sometimes resulting in cooperation, other times in conflict. 

BarentsObserver decided to compare the Barents Region and the Balkan Region by using social and economic data from the two data portals, Patchwork Barents and Patchwork Balkan. In this case, the Balkan Region includes Bulgaria, Serbia, the Former Yugslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the two Turkish border regions Edirne and Kirklareli. Below are the results of the comparison. 

Population change
One major difference between the Barents Region and the Balkan Region is population. With a territory nearly seven times as big as that of the Balkans, the Barents Region is considerably less populated. About five million people currently live in the Barents Region. The corresponding figure for the Balkan Region is twenty-one million. 

Recent figures indicate that the population number has been decreasing in the Barents Region. This applies to all the Russian subregions, where the population has been reduced by roughly thirty percent since 1990, as well as the Finnish sub regions Lapland and Kainuu, whose populations decreased by respectively 17.5 and 8.8 percent during the same period. Northern Ostrobothnia, Finland, has had the biggest population growth in the Barents Region (14.2 percent).

In most parts of the Balkan region the population is declining as well, particularly in Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The sub region Bosnian Podrinje, for example, had a population fall of 36 percent between 1991 and 2013. In contrast, The Republic of Macedonia has had a more stable population growth – about 2 percent in the period 2003-2013. Also the two Turkish Balkan regions, Edirne and Kirklareli had positive population changes – 1.3 and 4.9 percent, respectively, since the year 2000. 

The visualizations below show which sub regions had the biggest population changes.

(OBS: The visualization on the Balkans is lacking data over certain regions. This data cal be downloaded from the Patchwork Balkan website as a separate Excel-document).

Urbanization and life expectancy
The Barents and the Balkan region have developed two different settlement patterns. For example, the level of urbanization is generally high across the Barents Region. The share of population living in urban areas ranges from 68.8 percent in Troms, Norway, to 92.7 percent in Murmansk Oblast, Russia. 

This is different from the Balkans. Due to its prominent agricultural sector, the Balkan Region has a larger rural population. Nevertheless, the share of people living in urban areas is also considerably large, meaning there is a bigger gap between the rural and urban population. As shown by figures from Patchwork Balkan, the level of urbanization ranges from 22.1 percent in West Herzegovina, to 95.4 percent in Sofia region, Bulgaria.

The average life expectancy at birth in the Balkan Region is around 75 years and there is little variation among the countries. In the Barents Region, the average life expectancy is also around 75 years, although there are large gaps between its sub regions. The gaps are biggest between the Nordic and the Russian Barents regions. A newborn in Vasterbotten, Sweden, is likely to live to the age of 81. In contrast, a newborn in Nenets AO, Russia, is likely to live only to the age of 66. 

There are noticeable economic cleavages between the Balkans and the Barents. Take, for instance, the countries’ national GDP per capita. All the countries in the Balkan Region have a GDP per capita below 20,000 USD.

On the sub-regional level, Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria had the highest GDP per capita in 2011 – over 16,500 USD. After Sofia were a number of regions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the North-Western Turkish regions Tekirdag, Edirne and Kirklareli. The GDP per capita in these regions ranged between 7,000 and 10,000 USD.

Among the subregions with the lowest GDP per capita were the Polog and Northeast regions in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. These regions had a GDP per capita of, respectively, 2,250 and 3,097 USD in 2011.

Agriculture plays a key role in the economy of the Balkan Region. The Serbian region Jablanica, for example, specializes in sweet pepper production.

The economy of the Balkan Region is strongly based on sectors like agriculture, mining, automotive industry, machinery manufacturing and tourism – of which the latter is particularly important. The Eastern Bulgarian province Burgas alone counted over eight million nights spent by visitors in 2013. This is four times larger than the number registered in Finnish Lapland – the province with the highest number of visitor nights in the Barents Region. In total, the Balkan Region registers roughly 30 million visitor nights every year. The Barents Region registers only about 12 million.

As opposed to the Balkans, most of the national GDP per capitas exceed 40,000 USD. The exception is Russia, whose GDP per capita lies below 20,000 on the national level.

Click on the infographic for a visual summary of the data.

On the regional level, however, Russia has some remarkable variations. While Russian Barents regions such as Karelia, Komi, Arkhangelsk and Murmansk have a GDP per capita ranging between 7,600 and 16,500 USD, the region Nenets has a GDP per capita which exceeds that of both Sweden and Norway.

According to figures from Rosstat, Nenets AO had a GDP per capita of 134,476 USD in 2011. Because of a rapidly growing oil sector, the regional economy in Nenets has been growing significantly over the past decade.

In contrast, the Swedish Norrbotten and the Norwegian Finnmark had a GDP per capita of 63,910 and 57,812 USD, respectively.

The Barents Region’s economy is based on sectors like mining, fishery, energy, tourism and logistics. Similar to the Balkans, the Barents Region has large iron and coal deposits. In 2014, the Barents Region produced 50 million tons of iron and 13 million tons of coal. Another mineral gaining importance in the mining sector is diamonds. In 2013, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Russia, extracted over 600 thousand carats of what can be called “Europe’s northernmost diamonds”.  

Figures show that the two border regions are also divided by their income parameters.

How much does the average citizen in the Balkan Region earn in a year? Figures from Patchwork Balkan show that the average salary in Sofia (Bulgaria) in 2012 was 7,800 USD. It was the highest in the Balkans that year. Belgrade (Serbia) and Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina) followed with averages of 7,200 and 6,840 USD, respectively.

The lowest incomes were registered in Eastern Macedonia, as well as the regions Vidin and Kardzhali in Bulgaria – 3,840, 3,900 and 4,080 USD, respectively.

As for the Barents citizens, the highest average income in 2012 was registered in the three Norwegian Barents regions – Troms (44,134 USD), Nordland (42,341 USD) and Finnmark (40,229 USD). A large gap separated these regions from those at the bottom.

In 2012, the Republic of Karelia, Russia, registered the lowest average income in the Barents Region – 7,797 USD. This figure was not far from its neighboring Russian subregions, Murmansk, Komi and Arkhangelsk. But it was significantly below Nenets, whose average income counted 24,100 USD.  

In 2012, the Republic of Karelia in Russia registered the lowest average income in the Barents Region – 7,797 USD.

Both the Barents and the Balkans struggle with unemployment, although to different extents. 

Lapland, Finland, has the highest level of unemployment in the Barents Region (15.4 percent in 2013). The lowest unemployment rate can be found in Troms, Norway (2.3 percent in 2013).
In the Balkans, the situation is considerably worse. Half of the Balkan Region has an unemployment level above 30 percent. The highest level of unemployment was registered in Tuzla (Bosnia and Herzegovina) – over 60 percent in 2010. The lowest was registered in Kardzhali, Bulgaria (7 percent in 2013). 

Learn more about the Barents and the Balkan regions at Patchwork Barents or Patchwork Balkan