By Aleksandar Vasovic
NOVA CRNJA, Serbia (Reuters) - Pera Milankov is literally paying people to stay and have babies in Nova Crnja.
Trying to stem a declining birthrate and exodus out of the town on Serbia's northern border, the mayor has offered free school buses and free medical check-ups for children, as well as 200 euros for every newborn.
To no avail. Since 2002, Nova Crnja has lost 20 percent of its population, or almost 2,500 people, driven away by the closure of processing plants for sugar and sunflower oil, an ethanol producer and factories for meat and canned foods.
"It has all collapsed since the nineties," said Milankov. "And without new jobs, people have no reason to stay."
Alarmingly for this Balkan country, once the dominant republic of socialist Yugoslavia but now landlocked and impoverished, Nova Crnja is not alone.
Serbia has lost more than 377,000 people -- 5 percent of its population -- over the past nine years, according to the results of its most recent census released last month.
The statistics show a migration from village to city as Serbs abandon rural life in search of jobs.
Most graphically, though, it is evidence of the toll taken by a decade of war and isolation under late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, and the country's painful transition since his overthrow in 2000.
Hundreds of thousands were driven to flee in the nineties in search of a better life, choosing to raise their children abroad. Those who stayed are often too poor to have large families.
"In Serbia, people are taking more and more (anti-anxiety drug) Bensedin, and having fewer and fewer babies," commentator Zoran Lukovic wrote in the Serbian daily Blic.
The government has called the results "worrying and alarming".
"The state must react with an active population policy," said Serbia's minister for labor and social policy, Rasim Ljajic.
Of 157 municipalities such as Nova Crnja, just 22 registered population growth.
Of 23 cities, only three -- the capital Belgrade, Novi Sad in the north and Novi Pazar, a trading hub in the southwest -- have more people than in 2002.
"An entire belt of municipalities from the northeastern boundaries with Romania and Hungary to the southeastern borders with Bulgaria and Macedonia has shown negative growth," said Snezana Lapcevic, head of Serbia's state census office.
An estimated 700,000 people poured out of Serbia during the nineties as Yugoslavia collapsed in conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and finally Kosovo.
The overwhelming majority were young. In search of jobs, they settled in western Europe, Canada and the United States to raise families.
Those left behind face an official unemployment rate of 22 percent and an average salary of 380 euros per month.
The transition to a market economy has seen many once-subsidized factories close and public sector workers laid off.
The trend towards small families has driven up the average age to 42.
"In eastern Serbia the key problem is that most of the people have passed their reproductive age," said Dragan Vukmirovic, head of Serbia's state statistics office.
"I'm worried. The number of totally depopulated settlements is on the rise."
Democrats who overthrow Milosevic say they have launched infrastructure and investment projects to stimulate growth in rural areas and stem the outflow of people.
But critics say efforts have been ad hoc at best.
In the central Serbian municipality of Jagodina, larger-than-life mayor Dragan 'Palma' Markovic organized matchmaking parties and a five-day holiday in Greece for bachelors and unmarried women over the age of 38.
Jagodina has 301 more people than in 2002, but it's the exception.
In the southern municipality of Trgoviste, bachelors clubbed together in 2006 to search for brides from the former Soviet Union.
"We really wanted to marry, but no girl wanted to live in the middle of nowhere, so now I'm planning to leave," said a 47-year-old mechanic, who gave his name as Dragan.
Under Yugoslavia, Trgoviste received subsidies from the state as an underdeveloped region. Since then, local businesses, including a footwear factory and a food packaging plant, have collapsed, leaving hundreds unemployed.
"We lost about 1,200 souls in nine years," said Trgoviste's deputy mayor, Dragan Krstic. "The total population of the municipality plunged from 14,400 in 1961 to 5,200 now."
Krstic said of 70 packages of diapers and baby products to be given out by local authorities for newborn babies through the year, 47 have yet to be used.
"Having a baby is a luxury," said Snezana Ostojic, a waitress in the southwestern town of Cacak.
"Diapers, baby food, clothes ... they're expensive. And women are discouraged from having babies because they're getting sacked as soon as they get pregnant, so why bother?"
In Nova Crnja, 59-year-old Marija Grubanov said she last went to a wedding a year ago.
"It was my son's best friend," she said. "He got married, and immediately moved to Australia."
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)