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Baltics: Emigration Contributes To Decade-Long Population Decreases

  • Valentinas Mite

The results of censuses conducted in the Baltic states show that the populations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia decreased substantially during the past decade. The first years after the Baltic nations regained their independence saw tens of thousands of Russian speakers leaving. Today, the citizens of the Baltics often move in search of better lives. RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite looks at the issue of Baltic emigration and talks to people who've left about their reasons and whether they're happy in their new lives abroad.

Prague, 11 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The main reasons for emigration -- legal or illegal -- are usually tied to economics, that is, the desire for a better job and higher wages.

In the three Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the economic situation is unlikely to improve soon. According to a recent report by the European Commission, Lithuania will need 31 years for its citizens to achieve just 75 percent of the average living standards for citizens in the European Union. It will take 27 years for Latvia and 19 years for Estonia. These figures are similar to those for the citizens of Romania (34 years) and Poland (33 years) but are much higher than the 15 years for Czechs and only one year for Slovenes.

A member of Lithuania's parliamentary committee on human rights, Algimantas Salamakinas, told RFE/RL that emigration from Lithuania is a problem and that the majority of those leaving the country are looking for better jobs.

"It is inevitable," Salamakinas said, "that some people are leaving because Lithuania is too poor to provide good paid jobs for everyone. It is [also] sad that many young people, after their studies abroad, choose not to return."

The director of the Gallup polling organization's Baltic Surveys unit in Lithuania, Rasa Alisauskiene, told RFE/RL that, according to surveys conducted this year, large numbers of Lithuanians are interested in emigration.

"The polls show that 31 percent of Lithuanians would prefer to live abroad and only about 40 percent say they will stay in Lithuania. However, only 3 percent say they have already decided to emigrate," Alisauskiene said.

Alisauskiene said the majority of those leaving Lithuania are menial workers seeking unskilled work in the West. Some people travel to Ireland, Spain, or Sweden for seasonal, usually illegal, jobs.

Reda Zvinakeviciene left Lithuania 11 years ago and lives in Detroit, Michigan. She and her husband are free-lance artists who say they earn enough money to afford a decent life in America.

Zvinakeviciene said the first days, weeks and even months in the U.S. were difficult. She said America was a "completely different world," one which looked more "colorful and strange."

"We started looking around, observing what was going on in the States and, step-by-step, learned some things about this new world. Later on, we felt more comfortable, but at the same time became more critical about America," Zvinakeviciene said.

Zvinakeviciene is critical of the health-care system in the U.S. She can't afford health insurance and said she is afraid she will one day find herself sick but unable to afford to pay the doctors.

Zvinakeviciene said she can't imagine returning to Lithuania permanently. She said she visits Lithuania every year and that it has changed so much she can hardly recognize it. Zvinakeviciene said she doesn't think she would be able to adapt to what she called "this almost completely new country."

She said she has many friends in the U.S. and sometimes forgets she is a Lithuanian because their common interests unite them more than her national origin divides them.

Estonian Evelyn Hoglund married a Finn eight years ago and today lives in Finland. She said there are approximately 12,000 Estonians in Finland. Many of them came after Estonia regained its independence and opportunities to emigrate appeared. The Estonians came from different layers of society and adjusted differently to life in Finland. Hoglund admitted she is in love with Finland.

"Geographically, Finland is very close to Estonia. It is only 80 kilometers over the Gulf of Finland. The languages are also very closely related, and even when I was a child I was very in love with the Finnish culture, the Finnish way of life, so I was very familiar with the country and I spoke the language before I moved to Finland," Hoglund said.

Hoglund said she appreciates the fact that Finland is a welfare state. She said moving back to Estonia is always an option but that she would first like living conditions there to improve.

Twenty-five-year-old Latvian Ilze Ruke emigrated to Sweden four years ago to study at Stockholm University. She works in an advertising company and said she would like to stay in Stockholm because of the culture, the people and the language. She described the city as "fantastic, though noisy."

"I am considering going back to Latvia, but I do not think I will find an interesting job there. I am having a good time here, and I really like what I am doing here," Ruke said.

Ruke noted that there are laws governing the behavior of immigrants, such as a requirement to learn the language. But she said there are thousands of Latvians living in Sweden and that she considers the country to be friendly to immigrants.

Provisional results from the 2001 census shows the number of people living in Lithuania decreased by 5 percent in the years since 1989. Censuses in Latvia and Estonia conducted a year earlier show that during the 1990s Latvia's population decreased by 11 percent, and Estonia's by 12 percent.

Natalija Vaino is an adviser to Estonia's minister of population. She told RFE/RL that the main reasons for the decreases in population are low birth rates and the emigration of Russian speakers to Russia in the early 1990s. Official data is not available, but according to unofficial figures, more than 70,000 Russian speakers left Estonia during the decade. However, starting in 2000, more Russians are coming to Estonia than leaving, though the numbers are very small.

Martins Bicevskis is the director of Latvia's Department of Citizenship and Immigration Affairs. He told RFE/RL that during the first years of independence, about 100,000 Russian speakers left Latvia. Officials in Latvia do not have complete data about all Russian migration from Latvia. However, from 1997 until 2001, more than 7,000 Russians left Latvia on the basis of an agreement signed between Russia and Latvia.

Nearly 81,000 Russian speakers left Lithuania during the decade, a substantial segment of the 184,000 decrease in the population during that time.

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