On July 10, 2017, Ukraine adopted new regulations for border crossings. They require all Russian citizens entering the country to have biometric passports and “register with their temporary addresses and inform authorities about their movement within Ukrainian territory”. Moscow’s official reaction was predictably negative, threatening to introduce a visa regime for Ukrainians. This could potentially bring further complications to over a million Ukrainians working in Russia and an additional several million who annually cross the border to visit their friends and relatives.
While Ukraine had the world’s attention, primarily due to its political turmoil and Russia’s “hybrid aggression”, the country’s demography is and will continue to be its most serious challenge. This Eastern European country has a progressively shrinking population due to emigration and birthrate decline. As a result, the country of over 51 million in 1994 has only 44.4 million today and, according to forecasts, will only have 36.4 million by the year 2040.
Ukraine’s turbulent history has resulted in several waves of emigration. Between the end of the 19th and the beginning of 20th century, over ten percent of the population left to the US, Canada and South America. This trend continued in the interwar period for both economic and political reasons. Consequently, Ukraine has one of the largest diasporas in Western hemisphere with two million Ukrainians living in the U.S., one million in Canada and over 300,000 in Brazil.
Another, more tragic and sinister, side of Ukrainian history had been a forceful transfer and deportations to the eastern part of the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Russian government transferred over 1.6 million Ukrainians (mostly peasants) to Kazakhstan and the Far East of Russia. During Stalinist rule, over 1.2 million ethnic Ukrainians were deported to Siberia, Central Asia and the Far East, many of those from the territories annexed as a part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Other countries’ ethnic minorities also suffered from oppression and forceful deportations. In the 1930s and 1940s, 450,000 ethnic Germans and over 200,000 Crimean Tatars, as well as Poles, Bulgarians, Armenians, and Greeks were deported. These deportations, along with “voluntary resettlement”, resulted in the situation when, according to the last Soviet census in 1989, there were 6.8 million Ukrainians living in other part of the USSR; the largest numbers were in Russia (4.4 million) and Kazakhstan (890,000).
However, during the Soviet times, the demographic picture of Ukraine was not so straightforward. The population outflow due to deportation was accompanied by an even larger inflow from other parts of the USSR. In this period, Ukraine always had more immigration than emigration. In the Soviet era, the number of ethnic Ukrainians who lived in the USSR but outside of Ukraine grew consistently. The Soviet government, which wanted to create a so-called “new ethnic entity – Soviet people”, closely regulated the migration processes. Ethnic Ukrainians made up the largest proportion of those leaving, while the incoming population was largely represented by other ethnicities, mostly ethnic Russians. As of 1989, 44 percent of Russians living in the Ukrainian republic were born outside Ukraine.
In the first few years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian population continued to grow. In fact, the first years of Ukrainian independence are associated with large-scale immigration into Ukraine. Over one million individuals immigrated to Ukraine between the beginning of 1991 and the end of 1992, predominantly from the former Soviet Union. The year of 1992 had the largest immigration with 538,200 people entering Ukraine. That year, the population of the country reached over 51.3 million. The majority of immigrants who arrived in the years immediately after independence were repatriated ethnic Ukrainians from Siberia, the Russian Far East, and Kazakhstan. Those ethnic Ukrainians had been forcibly deported to other parts of the Soviet Union as well as representatives of ethnic minorities deported by the Soviet regime (Crimean Tatars, Armenians, Bulgarians, Germans, and Greeks). In total, between 1991 and 2004, 2,229,870 individuals immigrated to Ukraine.
Another important source for immigration has become refugees from various ethnic conflicts and wars in the newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). The 2001 census shows that in comparison with 1989, the number Georgians increased by 45.3 percent (from 23,500 in 1989 to 34,200 in 2001), while the number of Armenians nearly doubled (from 54,200 in 1989 to 99,900 in 2001).
Emigration in the Era of Independence
The first years after the country regained its independence were characterized with political turmoil and a worsening economic situation as well a newfound openness of borders that resulted in a new wave of emigration. Between 1991 and 2004, the government counted 2,537,400 individuals who emigrated, of those 1,897,500 moved to other post-Soviet states. Another important trend has been an emigration of ethnic Russians (mostly to Russia) with their share in Ukrainian population having decreased from 22.1 percent to 17.3 percent by 2001, while their absolute number decreased by 26.6 percent.
According to various estimates, up to three million Ukrainian citizens are currently working abroad, many of them illegally, in the construction, service, housekeeping, and agriculture industries. Ukrainian embassies report that 300,000 Ukrainian citizens are working in Poland (although an unofficial estimate puts their number in this country up to 1 million), 200,000 in Italy, approximately 200,000 in the Czech Republic, 150,000 in Portugal, 100,000 in Spain, 35,000 in Turkey, and 20,000 in the U.S. Remittances from Ukrainians abroad amount to between $4 and $6 billion per year. This money is mostly used for family consumption and housing. Unfortunately, due to a lack of economic incentives, widespread corruption and red tape, very little of this money is invested into small family businesses.
The recently signed agreement for visa-free travel within the EU will make labor migration easier. Thus, the EU needs to come up with labor policies for dealing with the influx of a large number of Ukrainian laborers (many of those still without a legal status). In 2003, the Ukrainian Parliament ratified the „Treaty on Temporary Labor Migration“ with Portugal, which allows Ukrainians to be placed in jobs offered by Portuguese employers. Ukraine has also initiated negotiations on similar agreements with Italy, Spain, and Greece.
Ukraine’s Ethnic Groups
Ukrainian’s Hard “European Choice”
The recent history of Ukraine had been a struggle of first considering, and then implementing the so-called “European Choice”. That term or slogan signifies a way of accepting European democratic values and eventual political and economic integration with the EU, and becoming a full member as the final goal. The country’s present political establishment, at least at declaratory level, is pursuing this choice. This “European Choice” resulted in a dramatic overthrow of the pro-Kremlin Viktor Yanukovych government in 2014 and a subsequent Russian military intervention with the annexation of Crimea.
Many supporters of Ukraine’s pro-Western and free market path of development (including political forces at the country’s helm) believe that they do know the formula of success, the one that allowed Ukraine’s neighbors, such as Poland or the Czech Republic, to achieve impressive economic results. Yet, after more than a quarter century of independence and at least two clearly pro-Western and pro-business administrations, the country economic development is sluggish and it keeps falling further behind its Eastern European neighbors.
Surely, there have been several reasons for that lack of progress, including corrupt political elite and oligarchic economic structures that profit from the status quo with recent Russian aggression and conflict in the East. However, the most pressing problem, the one that has not received enough attention (particularly in the media), is the country’s severe demographic crisis. Even if compared to its neighbor in the east, Russia, which is facing a serious demographic crisis of its own, the Ukrainian situation looks much worse. Since the beginning of the millennium, Ukraine’s population loss has been three times worse than Russia’s.
Since 2003, the first year for which the Ukrainian state statistics agency has comparable data, Ukraine has had a “natural” change in population (number of deaths exceeded the number of births) of around 2,000,000. These statistical figures should be a matter of serious concern for the country’s authorities. The existing demographic trends not only explain Ukraine’s meager economic progress, but also forecast a worsening demographic situation in the future.
If compared to its closest and most economically successful neighbor, Ukraine’s population is structurally much older than Poland’s was when it first embarked upon its “shock therapy” program. When comparing these two countries’ population structures, one can see a magnitude of differences. In 1989, Poland had essentially a typical, regular age distribution: the older generations, on average, were smaller than the younger generations. Despite some skewing caused by the impact of World War II, it was a country with a labor force that was expected to grow and be able to implement an economic reform program.
Compared to Poland, Ukraine’s age distribution picture looks almost the opposite. The younger generations, the people who will make up the Ukrainian labor force in 10, 15 and 20 years, are much smaller than the generations they will replace. Thus, an unfortunate truth is that Ukraine’s labor force is shrinking and will continue to shrink in the foreseeable future. This is the fundamental difference between Ukraine and Poland and other, more successful Central and Eastern European neighbors. As one economist gloomily commented on Ukraine’s future: “Barring a radical (and unlikely) change in behavior, the next several years will witness an accelerating depopulation, one that will only be made worse by emigration”.
Despite Ukrainian government promises (mostly at the declaratory level) to introduce policies for improving demographic trends, very little has been or can be done to correct them, nor does it have enough financial resources for that. Given the fact that demography is a sociological phenomenon, more so than a political one, there have not been any easy solutions developed to deal with it. A substantial and long-term financial help package from the West could help to somewhat mitigate the situation and at least reverse labor migration and emigration trends. However, for that the government should be ready and willing to introduce much needed reforms accompanied by unpopular and painful austerity measures. Their colleagues from the Baltics states and, more recently, the Greeks could attest on a bitter taste of biting such a bullet.
So, is the “European Choice” still a valid goal, and is Ukraine still moving towards Europe? The answer to both is: rather yes than no. However, existing demographic problems mean that this movement will be slower than and not as straightforward as many would like it to be.
Ukraine Population Forecast