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Wider Image: Depopulation turns Serbian villages into ghost towns

REPUSNICA, Serbia (Reuters) - Repusnica was once a bustling village on the slopes of Mount Stara Planina in Serbia. Now its bars lie empty, its houses stand shuttered and nobody walks its streets.

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Authorities declared the village near the border with Bulgaria closed in 1998 due to depopulation caused by mechanization of the economy, the closure of state factories and an exodus from Serbia linked to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

In many nearby villages, the population has dwindled and sometimes just an elderly couple or a single person is left. Schools, clinics, veterinary stations and shops are closed. Visitors are rare. Roads are peppered with potholes.

“Some people left, moved away ... to seek better living standards. The village was neglected and ignored especially when it came to infrastructure,” said Rade Bogdanovic, a retired veterinarian in Kalna, which is part of the Knjazevac municipality that also includes Repusnica.

“Only the elderly stayed behind, the parents of those who left, and over time they grew older and died,” he said as he stumbled across rubble to reach his dilapidated former office. He said Kalna’s population had shrunk from 4,000 to 1,000.

Between 2002 and 2011, Serbia lost more than 377,000 people or 5 percent of its population of around 7 million, according to the census. Numbers have fallen in 86 percent of the country’s 4,600 villages, according to the Serbian Academy of Science.

A similar situation exists in some other countries in the Balkans and southeastern Europe.

In the past 50 years the eastern Serbian municipality of Knjazevac fell by half to 30,000 people.

“We now have a population in line with what we had after World War One,” said Marija Jelenkovic, a municipal official.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s around a million left to seek jobs in the West. An estimated 700,000 people left Serbia during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The outflow continued after the fall of President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. A transition to a market economy saw many state factories close and a trend towards smaller families has seen the average age rise to 42 according to the 2011 census, up from 40 in 2002.

The Serbian government has sought to tackle the problem by improving infrastructure and offering incentives to younger people to stay in villages. The effort is yet to yield results.

In 2015, a human rights official appointed by parliament said the country should ask migrants flooding through the Balkans from the Middle East to settle in empty villages but the idea was abandoned.

Reporting by Marko Djurica and Dusan Mirkovic; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg