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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

TWO COUNTRIES, TWO DEMOGRAPHIC CHALLENGES

Both Ukraine and Belarus have long-standing population worries even though the immediate circumstances are very different. The crises of recent years – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Belarus’s post-2020 political crisis – have only exacerbated those challenges. The EU ambitions of Ukraine and the Belarus opposition must therefore be handled with consideration of each country’s demographic outlook.



This text was originally published on the Warwick Ukraine-Belarus Hub blog here.

 

Two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Russian air force bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol. The 9 March 2022 bombing brought some of the earliest accusations of war crimes against Russian forces. It also prompted a propaganda war, with the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom trying to claim that the incident was ‘fake’. Ukraine’s president said it was evidence that Russia was committing ‘genocide’.

 

It was – in a literal sense – a strike at the base of Ukraine’s demographic pyramid. The bombing of the maternity hospital was one of the most gut-wrenching of the attacks in the early days after the invasion. It was indiscriminate and without military necessity.

 

Where are the babies being born?


The war in Ukraine creates multiple challenges for Ukraine’s demography, especially when many interpret Russia’s goal as the elimination of the Ukrainian nation. The age and gender structure of any country’s population, and how it is changing, have far-reaching ramifications for the country’s future. A population that is shrinking as in Ukraine cannot sustain a nation. A growing and young population, on the other hand, can be beneficial for economic growth (although a large population is not necessarily a good thing).


Even before the February 2022 invasion, Ukraine’s fertility rate was well below replacement level. Ukrainian women gave birth to 1.16 children on average before 2022, whereas the replacement level is usually taken to be 2.1 children in a developed country.


The war has obviously dented even this low level. In wars many young men are sent to the front lines and not all will return. Many women who are of child-bearing age emigrated in the months after February 2022. In total six million Ukrainians left their country after the February 2022 invasion. The fertility rate in Ukraine is now estimated to be only about 0.7 children per woman. At a time when tens of thousands of Ukrainians are dying this is an extremely challenging situation.  


One might argue that the emigrants will return. Indeed – they might. But the longer people live outside their home country, setting down roots in a new one, in new homes with new lifestyles, the less they will want to uproot again. The population of Ukraine when it gained its independence from the Soviet Union was more than 50 million. By 2021 it had fallen to 43 million and, with millions having left since February 2022, the most recent estimate is 38 million. United Nations projections see it only falling further in the coming decades irrespective of the outcome of the war.

 

Fleeing persecution


The situation is not much better in Belarus. It, too, has long-standing demographic problems. In the wake of the 2020 political crisis, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians left their home country swelling the diaspora. Most estimates range from 200 to 500,000 people leaving and these are often the young and best educated.


As in Ukraine, the problem did not begin with the crises of recent years. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Belarus’s population was more than ten million. It had been steadily declining until the events of 2020 caused a sharp uptick in emigration. The official population, according to the National Statistical Agency (Belstat), remains above nine million, but some people doubt the credibility of that figure.


The government in Belarus is trying to encourage larger families; Lukashenka talks oftener than in the past about women’s 'role' in society being ‘motherhood’. The state is also trying to stem emigration, for example by changing the rules about mandatory work placements for graduates given state support to study at university to prevent them from leaving the country. Efforts to entice Belarusians back home through a special ‘return commission’ – which supposedly allowed political exiles to recant their past behaviour in exchange for criminal charges being dropped – may have had a more sinister motive (many have in fact been arrested on their return), but it was also in part a recognition of the demographic problems besetting the country and its economy.


As with Ukraine, it was often the young and healthy that left and the elderly who stayed behind. The 2019 Belarusian census had already found that a third of the population was over 55 and that proportion will surely have risen.


A recent rumour claimed that the regime’s Operational Analytical Centre (a government research department) had concluded that fewer than eight million people now lived in Belarus. The OAC’s finding reportedly alarmed Alyaksandr Lukashenka. While the authenticity of the figures cannot be verified, it is plausible that the country’s population has fallen so steeply.

 

European futures


Both Ukrainians and the exiled Belarusian opposition are eyeing a future as members of the European Union. In Ukraine’s case this is a formal constitutional ambition: an amendment approved in February 2019 stated that the country’s strategic goals included EU membership. In the case of Belarus, it is the exiled opposition which – as of 2023 – has declared its goal that Belarus in the future would have membership of the EU.


Freedom of movement is one of the key appeals to individuals of closer ties to the EU and Brussels should not compromise on its core values. At the same time, it needs to focus part of its preparatory work on ensuring that the path to EU membership does not simply mean a brain drain in eastern Europe. The EU must work with its Ukrainian and Belarusian counterparts to ensure that future enlargement doesn’t compound existing demographic challenges.


It must focus its investments to help to make Belarus and Ukraine countries that people wish to return to with freedom of movement, rather than ones more people are encouraged to leave. Creating incentives to other EU citizens to relocate to the countries may also help, since immigration is the most obvious way to compensate for the low fertility rates in both countries.


Given the rise of populist sentiment in many existing EU member states, which might turn Europeans against enlargement, finding a way of making both countries attractive relocation destinations would not only help Belarus and Ukraine but would also help to keep the European project on track and bolster it for future challenges.


Image credit: Time lapse photo of people crossing a street, by Mike Chai. Downloaded from Pexels (royalty-free images).

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