Dying Out?

14 March 2012, 13:00

Iryna Kurylo, head of the Department for the Quality of Demographic Processes at the Mykhailo Ptukha Institute of Demography and Social Research, Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences, analyzes stereotypes and problems found in Ukraine’s current demographic processes for The Ukrainian Week.

U.W.: "Ukraine is dying out." Can this be stated with any certainty?

We can say with certainty that there is a steady trend of depopulation, i.e., the mortality rate is higher than the birth rate. Sadly, Ukraine is one of the fastest depopulating countries in the world. Only Russia, Bulgaria and Belarus can compete with us on this. We have a low birth rate, which is nothing out of the ordinary for many countries, but we also have a much higher mortality rate. Moreover, life expectancy in Ukraine is very short. We have seen some improvement in this area in the past three years, but only time will show whether or not the trend will persist. So contrary to established stereotypes, negative trends in the mortality rate, rather than the birth rate, are our main headache

U.W.: Why are Ukrainians dying at such a high rate?

There is an entire slew of problems here. On the one hand, there are rather unfavourable social economic conditions, i.e., external circumstances from the viewpoint of an individual. On the other hand, most Ukrainians do not really live an altogether healthy lifestyle. We have an unprecedented mortality rate caused by excessive drinking and other bad habits. Above all, this pertains to men – the share of alcohol-related deaths is especially high in this category, just like that of premature deaths (before 65) in general. Another huge demographic problem for Ukraine is inadequate working conditions. For example, we have Europe's highest mortality rate among coal miners.

U.W.: Ukrainian society has a fixed notion that a significant part of demographic losses is due to labour emigration. Is this true?

We registered a negative migration balance throughout the 1990s, i.e., more people left the country than returned. However, there has been a positive balance since 2005, although it is very small, about 14,000-16,000 people a year. Of course this is a small number, but at least we can say that the constant population drain has stopped. At any rate, it is not enough to overshadow the huge decrease caused by depopulation.

U.W.: Are Ukraine’s birthrate indices very different from Europe’s?

If you look at the total number of infants in relation to mothers, Ukraine has a ratio of 14:10, i.e., 1.4 baby per woman. The average European coefficient is 1.6, and Sweden (1.9) has the highest. Interestingly, the birth rate in Ukraine steadily rose in 2002-2010, and the post-crisis year of 2009 was the best. Today it remains lower than the average European rate, but the gap is very small, and we can say that we are not very different with regard to this index. However, we again must return to the question of the extraordinarily high mortality rate and very short life expectancy – that is what sets us apart from all other ageing nations with a low birth rate. That is the reason why Ukraine has especially intensive depopulation.

U.W.: What caused the baby boom in the 2000s?

First, the social economic situation in the country somewhat improved, and the population adapted to the new conditions. Second, women born in the 1980s, when a relatively large number of babies were born, reached maternity age during this decade. In other words, the more mothers, the more babies. Third, the introduction of financial aid for parents with newborn children was an important factor.

U.W.: How many people has Ukraine lost in the 20 years of its independence?


U.W.: In your opinion, what should the state do to slow down, if not halt, this rapid depopulation?

The only real opportunity is to take measures to reduce the incidence of premature deaths, especially among men. This can only be done by drastically improving the health condition of the population and changing people’s attitude to a healthy lifestyle. For example, Ukrainians seem to look up to Western standards of living, individualism and hedonism, but the part of the value system linked to preserving individual health lags behind badly. In other words, Ukrainians must switch from the values of, so to speak, self-destruction to those of self-preservation on both the individual and collective level. And they have to do so in practice, not just talk about it. If you believe opinion polls, almost every Ukrainian considers health his topmost priority, but average citizens' actual actions show exactly the opposite.

U.W.: Some scholars identify a so-called black demographic belt in Ukraine, a series of regions mostly in southeastern Ukraine where the demographic situation has been constantly worse than in the rest of the country. However, if you believe official statistics, these are the regions that are doing better economically, in terms of per capita GDP and so on.

I do not know to what extent you can speak about a “stable belt” of that kind, because the situation is changing. For example, the mortality rate is high not just in Eastern Ukraine but also in Chernihiv Oblast and in Polissia. Odesa and Kherson regions have an extremely high mortality rate among women due to the lack of a good water supply. Western Ukraine has traditionally had a better demographic situation with more children born and fewer premature deaths. In crude terms, residents of Lviv Oblast actually drink less than people in Luhansk or Donetsk Oblast and have better working conditions – and jobs – than people in the Donbas or Southern Ukraine do. We should also mention the lifestyle – it is much healthier in Western Ukraine than in the rest of the country. So, constancy lies in the difference between the demographic situations in Western Ukraine and other regions.

U.W.: The devastating processes which took the lives of millions of the best Ukrainians throughout the 20th century are also identified among the causes of Ukraine's demographic crisis. Does this factor have an impact today?

The entire past century was one huge demographic loss for the Ukrainian people. Murderous famines, the two world wars and a civil war brought about a colossal distortion in the age structure of the population. Middle-aged groups, especially able men, regularly suffered gigantic losses. Extreme conditions triggered powerful demographic waves, i.e., alternations of generations that were drastically different in size and their social-demographic composition. This caused unfavorable demographic reverberations and led to negative demographic and economic consequences later. For example, now when the sizable post-war generations are retiring, the burden will soon fall on the much less numerous generation born in the 1990s when the birth rate took a nosedive.

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