A solution to Ukraine’s demography dilemma8 min read

 In Eastern Europe, Opinion, Politics

Ukraine has been facing a population decline since the mid-1990s. Low birth rates and emigration have contributed to the loss of nearly 10 million people between 1993 and 2021. The Russian invasion on 24 February has only exacerbated this trend. One of the possible solutions to this problem would be to increase immigration into the country. If Ukraine opens its doors to more immigrants, it can reverse its demographic decline and rapidly recover from the war. While the country does possess some advantages in attracting migrants, it is still plagued by disadvantages caused by the ongoing war, as well as historical, political, and economic patterns. 

Before February 2022, Ukraine had already faced many challenges that impeded its socioeconomic development. Various obstacles had prevented the country from following the pathway traversed by other post-socialist states such as Poland, Czechia, or the Baltics. One of these issues is Ukraine’s falling population. Ukraine has the fourth fastest-falling population in the world. Between 1993 and 2021, the population fell from 52,2 million to 43,8. There are multiple reasons for this rapid decline. Firstly, Ukraine has one of the lowest birth rates in the world at around 1.2 births per woman. Additionally, thousands of citizens went abroad to work in various European countries. According to Eurostat, in 2020, around 1.35 million Ukrainians held an EU residence permit. Better working conditions and wages in the EU countries attract Ukrainians away from their country of birth. 

Russia’s invasion in 2022 has further exacerbated this trend. In its immediate aftermath, more than 8 million civilians fled the country. While around 6 million returned as of October 2022, the conflict still threatens to drive people abroad. Some of those who left might not return once the war ends. Whether it is because their children become acclimated to new schools or their homes in Ukraine are destroyed, many people will choose to remain in the countries that sheltered them during the conflict. Ukraine’s casualty rate will also contribute to its long-term population decline. Estimates provided by the Norwegian Army state that Ukraine has suffered approximately 100,000 combat deaths and an additional 30,000 civilian deaths. 

Why this matters

The economic impact of a shrinking population is well documented. Countries with ageing and declining populations will face strains on the pension and healthcare systems. In a 2015 report, the IMF laid out this exact argument and advocated for, among other things, ageing countries bringing in immigrants from poorer countries. While significant revenue flows into Ukraine from remittances, this is not a reliable contributor to GDP. If countries were to tighten their immigration policies, the revenue created through remittances would diminish.  

Bulgaria faces a similar problem of a declining population. Between 2011 and 2021, the country’s population declined by 11.5%.  As the World Bank points out, the country is faced with a fast growth-persistent poverty trap. While EU membership greatly caused the country’s annual GDP to rise, corruption and weak institutions have led to drastic income inequality. As a result, many individuals emigrate to find better work in the wealthier EU countries. Ukraine must avoid this potential trap. 

What is to be done?

The government must take the necessary steps in the aftermath of the conflict to ensure that the population decline is arrested and eventually reversed. However, it must not make the same mistake that many other countries make – utilising pro-natal policies aimed at increasing the birth rate. This tactic has been tried in one of Ukraine’s closest neighbours, Poland. There, the current ruling government provided families with 500zl for every child born after the firstborn. Poland’s population is still in decline. As women gain access to more education and career opportunities, child-rearing becomes less of a priority, and having smaller families becomes the norm. 

Even if Ukraine were to adopt more generous parental leave, its population would not be guaranteed to grow. For instance, Sweden has an incredibly generous parental leave policy. However, its fertility rate has been in decline between 2010-2020. This is not to suggest that Ukraine should not improve its parental leave and support policies, but rather that these alone are not necessarily enough to promote demographic growth.

Therefore, Ukraine should implement policies that will promote immigration into the country.  This will give two major benefits to Ukraine. First, it will allow Ukraine to maintain and eventually grow its population. As immigrants arrive, a number will remain and have children of their own. For instance, in post-war Germany, thousands of Turks came to help the country to rebuild. While initially, this was to be temporary, thousands decided to remain. The second major benefit is that it will give the country a larger labour pool. Allowing a large contingent of working-aged men and women into the labour force will help the government and private industries rebuild with a large influx of talent to select from.

However, the country must also improve wages and working conditions to make the country more attractive to workers. A 2020 draft law limiting the rights of trade unions drew harsh criticism from Human Rights Watch. The government must thread a careful needle. On the one hand, labour laws must be attractive and flexible enough for companies to want to invest in the country, thereby creating jobs. However, the government must also ensure that workers have basic rights. This is not an impossible task. For instance, in 2022 Germany scored 89/100 on the Labor Rights index and still raked in over one trillion dollars in Foreign Direct Investment in 2021.

Homegrown strengths…and drawbacks

Despite the many obstacles it faces, Ukraine does possess some advantages when attracting migrants. When the war ends, Kyiv must begin reconstructing its economy and infrastructure. This can be a major pull factor in attracting labour from poorer countries in the global south. Another advantage that the country possesses is the nature of Ukrainian patriotism. Unlike in many of its Eastern and Central European neighbours, the concept of civic or liberal nationalism is far more pervasive than the more insidious ethnic nationalism. To date, no far-right party has ever had any clout in the Rada and there has never been an ethno-nationalist President elected by the country. 

However, there are dangers Ukraine must stave off if it wants to attract more immigrants. While far-right parties do not command major influence in national politics, there are still instances of systematic bigotry in the country. This could be seen as recently as the early days of the war when many African and non-white individuals in Ukraine were discriminated against by Ukrainian border guards as they tried to flee. Another issue arises from the treatment of the Tatar and Roma minorities. One way to ameliorate this would be to bring these individuals into public facing government positions. Another would be to have these individuals portrayed positively in the media.

It must also improve its desirability as a destination for migrant labour. The country must crack down on corruption. If corruption were to remain pervasive, the exploitation of immigrants unfamiliar with the country’s politics and culture would be all but assured. Corporations and other entities would be able to pay illegal immigrants far less than the minimum wage and treat them inhumanely. Illegal immigrants would be far less willing to go to the police since that would mean almost certain deportation. While it appears that Zelenskyy is working to try to curb corruption, he must do more. Transparency’s Andrii Borovyk stated that, “the true measures of success would be the number of convictions and the state’s success in recovering proceeds from corruption as well as its enforcement of asset declarations.”

If Ukraine can reduce corruption, the country might become more attractive to immigrants. While the average income in Ukraine is not comparable to countries with a higher GDP, a secure state with a reliable justice system will give many individuals from other countries a desire to migrate. Not to mention an independent, strong judiciary will naturally cause GDP to rise as businesses will be more willing to invest in the country. Ukraine can also allow the families of migrants to immigrate. Again, looking at post-war Germany, this policy caused many Turkish labourers to decide to remain in the country. This will allow families to take root and naturally reverse the declining population numbers.  

The way forward

The War in Ukraine is far from over. With Russia refusing to halt its war of aggression, the suffering will continue. However, it is time to start envisioning a post-conflict Ukraine. The Ukrainian government must pursue policies that will not only rescue it from the immediate shock of the war but also allow it to thrive in the period after the conflict. One of the goals of these policies should be to attract immigration.

Opening the doors to foreign labour might speed up the post-conflict recovery in Ukraine. The key is convincing these individuals to stay. This is why it is crucial to promote integration and tolerance between Ukrainians and newcomers. This will help stabilise and eventually grow the population. This expansion could help grow the economy and prevent the welfare state from becoming overburdened. If the country can recruit individuals from abroad to contribute to and settle in the country while simultaneously promoting acceptance, Ukraine will have a bright and open future.

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