During his last press conference in 2011, Mr. Yanukovych credited his team for its “invaluable contribution” to the improvement of the demographic situation in Ukraine. “For the first time in the history of independent Ukraine, the birth rate has outpaced mortality in one third of Ukraine,” he said.
The death rate has indeed shrunk somewhat over the past two years compared to 2009. Mr. Yanukovych’s statement has once again revealed the problem Ukrainian authorities have been facing for a long time now. Yet, instead of implementing a comprehensive and long-term state policy to overcome the crisis, they have opted for targeted irregular steps that appear to be more like a simulation. Meanwhile, any positive trends, even if they have occurred independently, are recorded in the list of their own achievements.
A FLASHBACK FROM 2004
Viktor Yushchenko, the previous president of Ukraine, promised to “reverse the declining population trend in Ukraine” and “increase one-time benefits to mothers who have given birth at least tenfold” as part of his platform back in 2004. In truth though, the trend had begun to change three or four years prior to the 2004 election campaign. However, the increased benefits were indeed one of the few successfully completed commitments. A steep increase in these benefits from UAH 760 (USD 95) in 2004 to UAH 8,500 (USD 1,065) in 2005-2007 boosted fertility levels. After the first year of program implementation, Ukraine saw significant growth, reducing demographics losses. In 2008, the benefit was raised once more, now broken down into categories. UAH 12,240 (USD 1,530) was paid for the first child, UAH 25,000 (USD 3,125) for the second and UAH 50,000 (USD 6,250) for the third and subsequent children. At the same time, steps were taken to decrease child mortality.
Overall, the five years of Orange power, saw population loss almost half in Ukraine, going from 355,800 deaths in 2005 to 200,500 in 2010. In 2006, Zakarpattia pioneered as the oblast in Ukraine where the birth rate exceeded mortality by 665, although some said this was the contribution of the Roma. Still, demographic trends were improving in other oblasts, too. In 2008, Zakarpattia and the Rivne Oblast, as well as Kyiv, witnessed natural population growth followed by the Volyn Oblast in 2009 and the Chernivtsi Oblast in 2011. Currently, there are five regions in Ukraine where birth rates exceed mortality.
In spite of an obvious demographic improvement compared to the end of the last century, the overall situation is hardly worthy of idealization. Sporadic steps, such as higher childbirth benefit, will gradually lose their allure. Moreover, demographers are ringing alarm bells: over the next 20 years, Ukraine will plunge into a demographic downturn. Since the early 1990s alone, almost 5.3mn future parents have not been born in Ukraine (as of January 1, 1990 there were 18mn Ukrainians aged under 24 compared to 12.7mn on January 1, 2011). After all, the social policy of the current government confirms that it not particularly bothered by the nation’s demographic troubles, having literally wrapped up maternity support programs. Draft Law No. 9516 submitted to parliament by the Cabinet of Ministers in November 2011 is a case in point. It essentially excludes all those receiving social benefits for pregnancy and childbirth, as well as aid for single mothers, affecting some 80% of families entitled to such benefits. On the local level, social service employees are already rejecting financial aid for new mothers justifying their decision based on the families’ alleged prosperity; owning a car, washing machine etc.
WE WANT 52 MILLION!
It is naïve to expect that the birth rate will automatically be boosted in Ukraine once living standards have improved. If it were that simple, fertility rates would not have dropped significantly in developed countries. The Ukrainian government should determine the development and implement long-term strategies to raise birth rates and reduce mortality, overcome migration urges and encourage migrant workers to return home as its priorities.
The upward demographic trend should be backed by something other than merely childbirth benefits. Other mechanisms should be employed as well, such as developing subsidized residential construction for families with two or more children; differentiating child care benefit increase for children under the age of 3 in such families, and providing them with additional tax incentives, for instance a discount in real estate tax.
The prevention of mortality is another crucial instrument. First and foremost, this includes the most primitive preventive measures, such as campaigns against alcohol and drug addiction and smoking. According to expert opinion, alcohol is the cause of 40-50,000 deaths, drugs kill around 10,000 people and smoking takes around 100-120,000 lives in Ukraine annually. According to the World Bank, up to 94% of alcohol-provoked deaths in Ukraine could be avoided by taking such preventive measures.
Migration is another major demographic challenge for Ukraine. Ukrainian immigrants are perfect donors for host countries as they are well educated and experienced professionals. Neighboring Russia is essentially implementing a purpose oriented policy to offset the rapid loss of its native people with immigrants and the further assimilation of FSU citizens that are racially and ethnically close to Russians.
Some optimistic analysts forecast the return of Ukrainian migrant workers to their homeland. They say these people cannot stay in the West as their pensions will be too low to afford a decent life there. This seems quite reasonable, but first and foremost, this will affect older migrant workers. Moreover, this forecast is only true for people still working in those countries. Labor migration will clearly not change without improvements in Ukraine’s economy. But the government could also implement additional mechanisms to encourage Ukrainian migrant workers to return home, such as support the establishment of businesses in Ukraine using the money they have earned abroad, eliminate the adverse effect of “social orphanage” and a campaign to discourage permanent migration, taking families along and so on.
One thing the government must realize is that the funds it saves on today’s unborn children and state support to young families, will turn into a catastrophe for Ukrainians who currently have no or few children. The goods and services needed in old age would have to be produced by people who are not being born today.
In fact, demographic improvement, increasing the birth rate and reducing mortality are all matters of national security today. Otherwise, sooner or later, Ukraine will be forced to open immigration channels as a source for augmenting the population.