How Ukraine’s population dynamics is similar and different compared to its neighbors
In early August, the State Statistics Bureau signed a UAH 1.5mn deal with the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Mathematic Machines and Systems to draft a concept of a future automated system to collect and process census data. The tender was the first financial confirmation of a serious intent to conduct the census of Ukraine’s population that has been postponed for ten years now.
Ukraine tends to have delays with many necessary things for the lack of funding. In this case, UAH 1.5mn is just a tiny fraction of the total cost of the project which Ella Libanova, Director of the Institute for Demography and Social Studies at the National Academy of Sciences assesses at UAH 3bn, provided that the hryvnia stays at its current exchange rate.
However, Ukraine cannot postpone the census anymore. It has already missed one round of what the UN recommends to conduct once in every 5 or 10 years.
One repercussion of this strange situation is reputation risks. Uzbekistan is the only country of all post-soviet and Eastern European ones where the latest census had been conducted before Ukraine’s. In fact, it has never held a census of its own in the years of independence and is using data from 1989. Yet, Uzbekistan plans to change this in 2020 — the country’s Statistics Service has announced preparations for the upcoming census.
Another repercussion is practical. Any sociological survey, including the ones on political preferences which are the most popular with the media audience, requires the most accurate data on statistical population. In a nutshell, this term covers the general characteristics of the population in a given territory, including its quantity, age, gender and so on.
Ukraine’s Statistics Bureau does provide this information. It is based on statistical reports from the numerous public bodies and enterprises, among other sources. However, any methodology has its flaws. As years pass, mistakes mount and unaccounted changes take place. Therefore, this sort of information should be verified regularly. One way to do this is through a nationwide census. Ukraine conducted its latest one 17 years ago.
Add to this a psychological factor: a census legitimizes the understanding of where the given society currently stands in its development, and definitely helps battle some conspiracies circulating around demographic numbers. Right now, the Internet in Ukraine abounds in publications stating that there are fewer than 30 million Ukrainians left.
Finally, census serves as a basis for a comparison of a given society against others. Different sociological data can be difficult to compare as they are based on different collection and analysis methodology. Census streamlines this. While it provides the most generic data, it is still easily comparable. Most countries try to stick to the UN recommendations when doing their censuses, but the quality of the data is affected by the country’s level of development and the quality of its statistical entities.
The figures that will draw the most attention after the census is the total number of Ukraine’s population. According to the State Statistics Bureau, 42 million people currently inhabit Ukraine. Obviously, this figure does not include Crimea and parts of the Donbas. Census will hardly deliver a seriously different figure and is likely to overturn the apocalyptic forecasts of Ukraine’s rapid depopulation. However, it will show that Ukraine’s population continues to shrink — this trend persists since 1993.
Ukraine is not unique in this. The UN publishes regular updates of data on the global population and forecasts based on censuses and official statistics. It is no news that the world population is growing. Unless a global cataclysm takes place, it will have increased by almost 1.7 billion to 7.8 billion from 2000 to 2020. This growth, however, varies by different parts of the world. The population is shrinking in the whole of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, so Ukraine is not that different from its neighbors in this regard. It will have shrunk from 303 to 290 million between 2000 and 2020 in this region. Belarus, Hungary, Romania and Estonia all show similar downward dynamics, albeit with different paces. The Czech Republic, Slovenia and Montenegro are the exceptions with a slow increase of their populations.
UN forecasts that Eastern and South-Eastern Europe will face the fastest population decline in the world and risks losing 15% of its current population by 2050. Bulgaria, Latvia and Moldova will lead the way. Ukraine will be in the top ten.
Ukrainian politicians often manipulate demographic ups and downs, saying that they are caused by economic problems and poverty. Some refer to an “economic genocide”. But these factors hardly explain identical demographic trends in Croatia, Baltic States or Poland — all of them wealthier than Ukraine, and Poland having negative demographic dynamics despite the inflow of Ukrainian labor migrants.
A look at Ukraine’s other neighbors from the FSU space, including Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — reveals a more intriguing picture. Between 2000 and 2020, their total population will have grown from 54 to 74 million, reaching 95 million by 2050. This trend is similar across all countries in the region, although the pace of the growth varies. Most of them have seen a population growth by one third. The only outsider is Kazakhstan, the most well-off of these Central Asian states, with the 20% growth.
This shows that the increase or decline of the population is linked to local traditions and social factors more than the economic situation. Ukraine’s Caucasian neighbors offer a good illustration. Three small countries in the closest neighborhood show different demographic trends: while the population of Georgia and Armenia shrink, Azerbaijan is enjoying demographic growth.
From the perspective of these demographic trends, Ukraine is already integrated into the European environment. Its depopulation is caused by low birth rates, high emigration rates and early deaths. The first two factors are common between Ukraine and most of its Western neighbors.
Birth rates in Ukraine hit the rock bottom in the early 2000s. Between 2000 and 2005, 100 women in Ukraine had 115 children on average, making the country’s fertility rate at 1.15. None of its neighbors had such low numbers. The Czech Republic followed with 1.19, Slovenia with 1.21 and Slovakia with 1.22. The situation in Ukraine has improved since, its current fertility rate at 1.56 which is closer to an average across the region. Meanwhile, Moldova, Poland and Bosnia and Herzegovina have become new outsiders with 1.23, 1.26 and 1.39 respectively.
However, Ukraine’s result makes it highly unlikely that its population will increase or stay at its current rate in the future. In order to preserve the current population in Ukraine, its fertility rate should be at least 2.13 children per woman. These or similar numbers exist in six post-socialist counties alone where the populations are growing rapidly, and these countries are Azerbaijan and five Central Asian states. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have the highest rates at 3.28 and 2.91 respectively.
Most European countries have similar reasons for low birth rates. They come form a combination of different factors, including later marriages. In Ukraine, the number of mothers giving birth at 40-44 has tripled over the years of independence, while the number of women having children at 20-24 has decreased from being the peak of birthing age in the past. Today, people prefer to do education and career first, then get married and have children.
In terms of migration, Ukraine is hardly different from its neighbors westward, too. It is almost impossible to count the number of people who have left any given country because of illegal migration. However, even official statistics in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe reveals the outflow of population from the region’s countries. Ukraine is not a leader in this list. Georgia has lost the most citizens in the past 20 years, its ratio peaking at 14.9 emigrants per 1,000 inhabitants between 2010 and 2015. It is followed by Albania with -14.4 per 1,000 citizens in 2005-2010 and Armenia with -12.5 per 1,000 people over these years. Romania and Bosnia and Herzegovina have shown high emigration rates with -7.4 and -8.9 per 1,000 citizens. Ukraine’s worst emigration ratio was -0.9 in 2010-2015 which is closer to the outflow of the population in Poland.
The same outflow is seen in Central Asia — this is virtually the only indicator that both regions have in common. The key beneficiaries of this trend are Western Europe and Russia. Migration is feeding population increase in the old Europe but it is unable to correct Russia’s migration ratio as it has changed from +3 in the mid-2000s to +1 today. Given the nearly-European birth rates and high death rates, Russia’s total population has been shrinking slowly lately. Western Europe is mostly getting emigrants from Eastern Europe while migrants from Central Asia head to Russia.
What Ukraine does not have in common with the European demographic environment is its death rates. It has inherited the purely soviet phenomenon of a 10-year gap in the life expectancy between men and women. According to the UN forecast, Ukrainian women born between 2015 and 2020 will live 77 years on average while men will live 67 years. Moldova, Belarus and Russia are the only countries with similar expectancy. Men live longer in other neighboring countries in Europe and the Caucasus. In most European states of the former Soviet Union, life expectancy for men does not get below 71.
Tackling this aspect is actually a way to slow down the decline of population in Ukraine. The key reasons for low life expectancy of men in Ukraine are bad habits — alcoholism first and foremost — hazardous work and high death rates in car accidents. Men die most often on the roads.
Therefore, those in power who are so concerned about depopulation in Ukraine have clear tasks to work on. They can promote healthy lifestyle, reform healthcare, introduce modernization in industrial facilities and improve road infrastructure. Accomplishing this is more challenging than raising social benefits over and over again or complaining about low birth rates. This strategy will not bring quick results. But it will bring results eventually.