What a census can tell us that no other survey can
Lately, discussions about a “catastrophic” decline in the country’s population have become more common in Ukraine itself, leading to calls for a new census to be undertaken as soon as possible. The last one was 17 years ago, while common world practice is to carry one out every 10 years. Meanwhile, politicians and experts keep suggesting that the process is being delayed because official data about Ukraine’s population is likely very different from the reality — and that there is barely more than half the famous “We’re 52 million strong” actually living in the country today.
As it often happens, topics that are the subject of great speculation quickly lose touch with reality and take on a life of their own, offering, as they do, a usefully vivid tool that can be applied very effectively for the purposes of propaganda and populism. Among politicians who are determined to prove, one way or another, that independent Ukraine is no more than a failed state, one particularly striking line has been about “losing almost half the population without a Holodomor.” And, of course, their solution is to change the direction the country is going in and return, like the Prodigal Son, to the arms of a forgiving empire.
Why a census?
Ukraine really does need a proper census and delays in doing so have gone beyond the measure of reasonable. A census began to be planned back in 2012, when a decade had already passed since the previous one, run in December 2001. It was postponed several times under President Yanukovych. With the Russian invasion of Crimea, the opportunity to hold one across all of Ukraine’s territory disappeared. Since then, however, it has continued to be put off. Clearly, postponing a census until Ukraine has recovered all of currently occupied ORDiLO and Crimea — which could happen in a matter of months or in a decade and is not really in Ukraine’s hands — is also not an option.
On the other hand, the press seems to be exaggerating the significance of a census using arguments that have little basis. A census won’t necessarily offer a radical adjustment of the numbers compared with current statistics, partly because a census is trust-based. Censuses are a kind of national survey that covers many more questions than opinion polls and whose selection attempts to reach 100% of the country’s population. On the other hand, the information that a census produces typically does not undergo documentary confirmation. And whether a given household decides to say that there are 1, 2 or 3 members in the family or 5-6 members, that’s the number that will be recorded — even if, in fact, several members actually moved abroad long ago and have no intention of returning to their homeland, or, on the contrary, if here are a number of illegal migrants living in the household.
Given this case, current statistical data, which is based on information from residential registration databases, registries of civil status — births, marriages and deaths — and immigration services that record who has left or entered the country, all of which are based on at least some documentary evidence, are clearly far more likely to reflect the real situation.
For this reason, a census will not be a means of confirming or challenging the real number of voters in one population center or another. Still, it will have enormous significance for understanding, not how many people, but what kind of people actually live in Ukraine. The most valuable questions in the census survey will be those related to such aspects as self-identification, ethnicity, language, and social status. This is information that there is little purpose to distorting, but it is not generally reflected in any of the other regularly updated government databases. Some of it comes to light during opinion polls that are run by various sociological companies, except that such surveys rarely reach even 5-10,000 respondents, never mind 20-30,000. A census, whatever else might be said about it, will reach tens of millions.
Making sense of numbers
As of early July 2018, Derzhstat, the official statistics agency, reported 38.2 million permanent residents on Ukraine’s non-occupied territory, which is 6.9mn less than there was at the beginning of 2014, during the Euromaidan, and 9.9mn less than in the 2001 national census. Compared to the peak population figure registered in 1993, Ukraine has lost over 13.5mn residents. However, this kind of drop does not suggest some kind of catastrophe or genocide. For instance, of the 6.9mn Ukrainians “lost” since 2014, 6.1mn live on territory that is currently under Russian occupation: over 2.3mn then lived in Crimea and another 3.8mn in ORDiLO. It’s entirely possible that those numbers have shrunk considerably since 2014, because some residents fled to the rest of Ukraine, while others decided to take their chances in Russia and other countries. Still, 6.1mn lost as a result of Russia’s aggression is over 60% of the difference since the last census, and nearly 40% of the difference since the 1993 peak.
The remaining demographic losses are simply the consequence of a combination of various trends that are also common to other European countries. Having coincided, however, they have led to a substantially greater loss of population in the last quarter-century. First of all is what’s known as a demographic transition related to a steep decline in birthrates in economically advanced industrial or post-industrial societies with a high level of urbanization and the emancipation of women. This process was unrelated to Ukraine’s declaration of independence or to its two revolutions, in 2004 and 2013-2014. By 1958-59, the birthrate in the Ukrainian SSR was 2.3 live births per woman, which was the third lowest in the Soviet Union, after Latvia with 1.94 and Estonia with 1.95. In the 1970s, the birthrate declined further, to 2.05, and by the 1990s, it was down to 1.84. In short, Ukraine’s birthrate fell from 2.05 in 1960 to 1.27 by the late 1990’s.
This has been accompanied all along by a steep rise in the mortality rate. Many Ukrainians who were born at a tine when it was typical for a Ukrainian family to have four, five and even six children have died over the last two decades. Meanwhile, women who were born to families with only one or two children have themselves been giving birth to one, or at most two, children. This means that, sooner or later, the natural mortality rate should also go down as the older generation is replaced and the birthrate stabilizes. This will be at a low level, but it will be the same from generation to generation: there will also be fewer elderly people, as many of them will have been only children.
In recent decades, Ukraine has definitely suffered a major wave of emigration for social reasons, losing people both on a temporary basis as they look for work abroad, and on a permanent basis as they decide they can make a better life for themselves elsewhere. Moreover, this wave tends to involve young people who would normally be having children — which they either do in another country or postpone altogether. The older generation of parents and grandparents typically remains in Ukraine and eventually dies there. This is how the greying of the population takes place (see charts), as the birthrate declines and mortality rises.
Migration flows everywhere
Still, the process of mass emigration is also not unique to Ukraine. Most of Europe’s most successful countries have gone through this process — and some continue to feel it to this day. Far many more Irish, Scots, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes and even Germans, English, French, Spanish or Portuguese live outside their countries of origin today. The only difference is that they emigrated prior to the demographic transition in their homelands, which made the impact of emigration on total population numbers in their countries far less significant.
The widespread opinion that the number of emigrants from Ukraine has greatly exceeded official indicators in the last few decade seems quite exaggerated, especially with some bandying about numbers that are almost in the tens of millions. That’s supposedly why the current figures don’t reflect the real demographic decline. Mainly such comments refer to the illegal labor migrants who travelled to other countries in the 1990s and early 2000s, and have either returned home from their long-term work or have somehow managed to legalize their status in various countries and formally cut ties with their homeland. These individuals are mostly reflected in official emigration statistics.
The substantial outflow of migrants from the country for all the 26+ years of independence has largely been counterbalanced by a strong inflow of migrants from elsewhere. Official statistics from 1991-2008 show that nearly 2.6mn Ukrainians left the country permanently, but nearly 2.4mn immigrants entered the country during this same period. These cross-flows from post-soviet countries have largely been positive and the nearly 2.0mn Ukrainians who left Ukraine for other parts of the FSU were replaced by more than 2.2mn who moved to the country from elsewhere in the FSU. Even if some share of these were citizens who had moved away during soviet times and were not in the country when it became independent, when they returned they partly replaced the outflow of the 1990s, which really did reach the millions. Over 2010-2016, another nearly 120,000 Ukrainians officially left the country to live abroad permanently, mostly to the West. But these same official statistics show that 280,000 immigrants arrived in Ukraine during this period. These outdated notions about a huge hidden population decline due to emigration seem to ignore the official figure of at least 2.7 million immigrants since independence. Public awareness has been imprinted with myths by a press that primarily focuses on the “exit of millions” abroad.
Finally, there are the seasonal and swing migrant workers whose numbers have risen steeply in recent years but who remain, de factoand de jure residents of Ukraine. Why not let them earn money in EU neighbors or elsewhere if they have families, return to Ukraine for extended periods, remain its residents, and send most of their earnings home? A census will not change anything here.
Looking at all the factors presented here, officially current registers under various government agencies come up with 38.3mn permanent residents on Ukrainian territory that is not under Russian occupation, a number that appears to be very realistic. It may not include IDPs from the occupied territories, who do not add up to 1.5mn as the State Emergency Services and other social service agencies report. A large share of those temporary IDPs registered in Ukraine is a fiction engaged in for the purposes of getting a pension or other social benefits — and sometimes even obvious ‘dead souls’ that are part of a corrupt scheme. Establishing their true number is a task for a later date, especially since a large proportion of them that really is living in non-occupied Ukraine is gradually registering just like other local residents and becoming part of the general statistics on Ukraine’s current population.
Shifting ethnic balance
Russia’s occupation of Crimea and ORDiLO in combination with demographic processes that vary from region to region (see charts) has eased and accelerated Ukraine’s transformation into a normal European nation-state. If the country continues to exist in the territory that it currently controls for the foreseeable future, this will have a slew of benefits for internal consolidation and development, despite its real and present national traumas.
Prior to independence, the 1989 census shows that the share of ethnic Ukrainians in Ukraine was 72.7%, and 64.7% of the population considered Ukrainian its mother tongue. Another 22.1% were ethnic Russians, while 32.8% considered Russian their native language. But the accelerated decline in population in the least ukrainianized regions due to natural and migrational factors, and Russia’s occupation of the most russified regions have led to the share of ethnic Russians now being below 12.0%. The share of those who consider Russian their native tongue has dropped to 21.0%. This is even true if the results of the 2001 census are extrapolated to the current total population: the share of ethnic Ukrainians has risen to at least 83.8%, while the share of those who consider Ukrainian their mother tongue is at 76.3%. There is no region in non-occupied Ukraine today where the share of people who identify as ethnic Russians even reaches 30%, and in the majority of regions it is below 10%. Only six regions even register above 15% for this indicator.
Figures from recent opinion polls provide even stronger confirmation for this extrapolation: 88% of respondents claim Ukrainian ethnicity, while no more than 6% claim Russian ethnicity. In part, this is clearly due to internal migrational flows from regions with a higher concentration of Ukrainians to those where there used to be fewer, as well as shifts in self-identification among certain individuals who have roots in both ethnic groups. Since polls generally have a significant margin of error, it is hard to overestimate the role of a census in this respect. A census would place Ukraine in line with other countries of Europe like Lithuania with 84.2% titular ethnics, Bulgaria with 85.5%, Czechia with 86.0%, Serbia with 86.6% when excluding Kosovo, Croatia 89.6%, and Romania with 90.0%. It would also eliminate any basis at all for claiming that Ukraine is predominantly multi-ethnic.
Growing positive demographic trends in the more Ukrainian regions ensures that the preponderance of Ukrainians in determining their country’s policy will continue to grow. The loss of control over Russian-occupied territories in Donbas and Crimea has also meant the loss of the electoral base that the anti-Ukrainian camp needs in order to orchestrate a comeback. It has forced anti-Ukrainian forces to shift their propaganda from lobbying for a return to empire to promoting multi-vector and non-bloc status, which they hope will at least slow down or even succeed in blocking Kyiv’s move away from Moscow. The threat of a comeback by pro-Russian forces is still very much there, but it has been substantially undermined.
A solid middleweight
Meanwhile, these same demographic processes have significantly altered Ukraine’s position among European countries over the last nearly three decades. The gap between its population and its territorial size has seriously increased, making it hard to fairly compare the country to others who were closer to it at independence: in 1990, Ukraine’s 51.6mn was within the same range as Turkey’s 56.5mn, Italy’s 56.7mn, Great Britain’s 57.3mn, and France’s 58.0mn. Today, Turkey has burgeoned to over 81.0mn, Italy is at 60.5mn, Great Britain is over 66.0mn, and France is at 67.2mn — while Ukraine’s population has declined to 38-44mn, depending on whether the occupied territories are included or not, and is still shrinking. Moreover, projections are for all these countries, except perhaps for Italy, to grow to 75-90mn over the next few decades.
At this point, non-occupied Ukraine’s population does not even match Spain’s, with 41.8mn official citizens and 46.7mn if immigrants are included, or Poland, which recorded 38.4mn at the beginning of 2018, although even in 1991 and after the 2001 census Ukraine was well ahead of Poland (38.9mn та 41mn, respectively) and of Spain (38.2mn та 38.6mn). Of course, if the population in the two occupied regions is added, Ukraine remains ahead of both today as well, with 44.3mn. In any case, Ukraine is solidly in the trio of “mid-range” European countries — except that its demographic trends are in the opposite direction: their population is stable or growing slightly, whereas Ukraine’s is in decline. Still, this is the weight class that Ukraine is likely to stay for the next few decades, as the next in line, Romania with 19.5mn and the Netherlands with 17.3mn, are clearly very far behind.