Ukraine: Russia’s and Europe’s Mexico? A short reflection on the Ukrainian demographic fiasco

Josh Vanhee
Original source of the article

Josh Vanhee, Belgian Canadian, has lived and worked in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Eastern Europe for twenty years.  Involved in both non-profit and senior business roles, he writes based on his experience.  


Unknown to most of us, the two largest migration streams in the world are the ones involving Mexico to USA, and Ukraine to Russia.  Ever since 1991, Ukrainians have been migrating north and east to Russia in numbers that so far did not approach the 3.5 million Mexicans that choose the USA.  Yet Ukraine is set to break this unenviable record as its crisis also affects a demographic collapse and sees migration waves to the EU and to Russia measured in millions.

Ukraine’s chronic lack of adequate governance spiked two revolutions, one of which should be called a coup based on more than circumstantial evidence.  During the last 25 years, Ukraine has lost 7 million people to emigration and a rising death rate – the highest one in Europe.  Going from a nation of 50 million to 43 million,by itself already a staggering decrease of close to 15%, the situation becomes more drastic when we look at the demographic implications of the 2014-2015 crisis.

Maidan and its haste to chase and enforce a mono-thematic Ukrainian identity resulted in a demonization of Russians, and with it a significant part of the country’s population.  Two million Crimeans left Ukraine to gladly embrace the Russian Federation, a decision which seemed possibly rash and organized by Russia at the start, but which has since been vindicated: current, 2015 European polls validate the percentages of the original Crimean referendum.  However one turns the pages on the events in Eastern Ukraine, it is hard to see Donetsk and Lugansk as an integral part of Ukraine in the near, never mind distant future.  This means that another 3-4 million people – possibly up to 7 million if the remaining areas in these provinces join the rebel areas – want a lot less Ukraine, and a lot more Russia.

Yet the demographic debacle does not stop there.  Russian Statistics reported that as of mid January 2015, as much as 2.2 million Ukrainians are now seeking refuge in Russia.  While Russian media sarcastically pointed this out as a ‘Ukrainian invasion’, the fact is that many of these refugees are fleeing for multiple reasons, only one of which is the conflict in the East.  Repeated Ukrainian attempts at conscription – with ever widening age criteria – has led to huge numbers of draft dodgers that are also flooding the Russia border.  The crash of the Ukrainian currency – a process that appears far from having touched rock bottom – is making Ukrainian bankruptcy an active verb covering many months, rather than a sudden and mere momentary state of affairs.  The Ukrainian Parliament’s final approval of IMF criteria came early March 2015, but its implications are still to hit pensioners, government workers, businesses and families.

Apart from a huge wave towards Russia – the country where most of the white collar or educated Ukrainians can still use their experience or qualifications – there is an expected tripling of exodus numbers towards Hungary and Poland, and to a lesser extent Romania.  If one adds all of these numbers together, it is not at all outlandish to forecast that this country will, by mid 2016 to early 2017, shrink to less than 30 million. While Russia is already gasping with the burden of lower oil prices and the Ukrainian refugees at 2 million, it may see this number double. Surrounding EU neighbours may need to forecast a similar 3 to 4 million transient Ukrainian workers that would increasingly stay or seek immigration into other countries.  These numbers go far beyond any current EU plans – 2013 numbers rate at roughly 600,000 to 800,000 for all EU combined; it will add to the existing growing popular discontent with migration policy, and it will inflate national budgets.

Any crisis of this magnitude also has a major impact on life expectancy.   During the US-celebrated shock therapy in Russia in the early 90’s, Russian life expectancy dropped by 10 years.  While this may appear financially beneficial in the short term – shorter lives mean less pensions to pay out – the combination with mass emigration of the active workforce is potentially catastrophic.

Are some of these refugees coming back? Knowing whether migration is temporary or permanent is key; Ukraine has always had a high transient workforce with most of that work found in Russia.  Undoubtedly some will come back; yet any comeback is inspired by an improvement in the country’s immediate prospects.  Prime Minister Yatsenyuk can seek the crown of well wishing in declaring 2015 the year of stabilization and 2016 that of the first small growth.  It is much more likely that 2015 is the year of full-scale implosion followed by minimum 2 years of stabilization with negative to zero growth.  Already in 2011, three out of five white collar workers were actively considering emigration. This trend was hastened by February 2015 and increased to four out of five (83%).  The most worrisome statistic for Ukraine is that these numbers concern their active skilled workforce right now, a work force that is looking how not to pay taxes inside Ukraine.  Since the government continues to organize mobilization for what has so far been a disastrous war campaign and is organizing increasing repressive measures, as well as creating the unpredictable leviathan of lustration, how can any significant returning numbers be expected?

Joint migration pressures of this magnitude on Russia and the EU should, apart from the extreme human cost of Ukraine’s own belligerence, bring even more reasons to find a harmonized approach and force the Kiev regime into compromises that reduce suffering and increase the prospects of some decent level of life quality.

This article does not yet venture into the details of the demographic collapse because that requires looking at the untenable burden of state debt, of maintaining some level of social security with a rapidly shrinking tax base, negative birth rate projections and health statistics. Irrespective of the fact that Crimea and DPR/LNR leave with little likely remaining cost to the Ukrainian budget, the remaining Ukrainian population make-up is unable to engender economic growth in the near to medium future.

Maidan’s idealist delirium, a potent drink manufactured in the US, bottled in the EU and celebrated by so many in the West, has poisoned the well in Europe’s second most populous nation for the foreseeable future. Ukraine is about to eclipse Mexico in a record few would envy.

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