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Postcommunist, European, And 'Short Of People'

  • Charles Recknagel

"This is a village of pensioners and after we all die, nothing will remain except for a ghost town," says Iamze Saparashvili, a 70-year-old retired nurse living in the village of Grdzelchala in eastern Georgia.

"This is a village of pensioners and after we all die, nothing will remain except for a ghost town," says Iamze Saparashvili, a 70-year-old retired nurse living in the village of Grdzelchala in eastern Georgia.

Media around the globe have splashed headlines marking the birth of the world's 7 billionth citizen.

It is a sobering birthday. That's 1 billion people more than the world had just 12 years ago.

But while the population of most areas of the world keeps inexorably growing, that is not the case in Ukraine.

Halyna Marchenko, the head of the obstetrics department of one of Kyiv's maternity hospitals, spends her day delivering babies. But the country has not had enough babies to offset its falling population for decades.

"There was a large decline after Chornobyl, after 1986. For three to four years after it, people were afraid to give birth," says Marchenko. "Now in Kyiv the birthrate has grown, but that is not the normal situation in Ukraine. In Ukrainian villages, fertility has fallen significantly, compared to the regional centers."

One Thing In Common

Ukraine is one of just a dozen countries in the world today that has a negative population growth. And by no accident, it shares one key characteristic in common with almost all the others: It is a formerly communist European state.

The dozen countries include five in the former Soviet Union: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, and Lithuania. Three others are former Soviet satellites: Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. And two more are from the former Yugoslavia: Serbia and Croatia. The final two are Germany and Portugal -- Western European states that promote low birthrates.

The fact that so many of the states in this group share a communist past intrigues demographers because it suggests they were mismanaged into their negative population growth. All of them began losing population after they experienced the collapse of communism two decades ago.

Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, for example, together have only 94 percent of the population they had in 1990. Collectively, that represents a loss of some 12 million people. Only Russia, today, is beginning to show recent signs of reversing this trend enough to move from negative growth to zero growth.

High Death Rate

One of the reasons for population decline is a high death rate, which in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine is among the world's highest outside of Africa.

"The death rate [in Russia], which was always terrible underneath communism ever since the 1960s, it got worse, even worse -- temporarily -- in the early 1990s," says David Coleman, professor in demography at Oxford University in Britain.

"It's now recovered a bit to the same sort of level it was under communism, but further progress there is really very weak," he continues. "And this is manifested in a gap of at least 12 years between expectation of life of males, which is in the mid-60s, and that of women, which is in the 70s, which is a much bigger gap than is normal in developed countries, or anywhere else for that matter."

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According to the UN's just-released State of the World Population 2011, the life expectancy for Russian men is 63 years and for women 75 years.

Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus average 14.3 deaths per thousand people each year. All three countries share high alcohol-abuse rates -- especially for men -- and poor dietary habits that help make their death rate not only far higher than in Western Europe but also far higher than in the former Soviet Central Asian republics.

The average death rate for the five Central Asian republics today, at 6.6 deaths per thousand, is just half what it is in Russia. The lower figure is variously attributed to a healthier diet, greater support for individuals from extended families, and less alcoholism.

Low Birthrate

If the death rate in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus is high, the birthrate is low -- too low to keep the population stable. The average Ukrainian woman gives birth to 1.2 children and the average Russian woman to 1.5 children. To keep a population stable, a birthrate of 2.1 children per woman is usually considered necessary.

Why is the birthrate so low in post-Soviet European countries? Many demographers say part of the explanation is socioeconomic.

"Speaking of fertility, there are a number of factors. It is mainly influenced with economic factors, and sometimes psychological, including the fact that women in European countries are mainly well-educated. They don’t agree to be limited only with internal family interests," says Ella Libanova, director of the Institute for Demography and Social Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv.

Under the Soviet system, of course, women were equally well-educated and most worked full-time. But career paths were limited. More importantly, the dismantling of the subsidized child-care system and of other features of the social safety net has meant that many women in the post-Soviet European states -- like their Western European counterparts -- now delay their childbearing years until their late 20s and early 30s.

That is a marked difference from the Soviet years, when the great majority of women got married and had children earlier.

The postponement of children allows women to be more independent and helps families cope with difficult economic circumstances. But it also means that societies that practice it have negative or low population growth rates.


Countries that maintain a more traditional culture of early marriage have higher birthrates. In the five Central Asian states, the average birthrate is 2.5 children per woman, twice the rate in Russia or Ukraine.

But there are still other factors, too, that have helped to weaken the growth rate in many former communist European countries.

One of the most important of these is out-migration. As economies continue to stagnate in the former communist countries that have not successfully moved to free-market systems, both skilled and unskilled workers leave home in search of jobs.

The effects of out-migration are particularly noticeable in countries like Georgia, Armenia, and Moldova. These countries -- unlike Russia, Ukraine and Belarus -- have a modest growth rate, but it is kept much lower than normal by the departure of people across their borders.

"The transition period brought to the fore such demographic problems as the aging population, a growing emigration rate and, of course, an abrupt birthrate decline," says Garik Hayrapetyan, executive representative of the UN Population Fund in Armenia.

"In the case of Armenia, the birthrate has nearly halved compared to what it was in 1990," he continues. "There are several factors. The first is, naturally, changes in the social and economic situation, a transition to market relations in which not all people managed to find their place or maintain their living standards at a necessary level. Under such circumstances some of them sought to go abroad to find a way for having proper living conditions there."

Empty Houses, Elderly People

In Armenia, one person out of every thousand emigrates each year. In Georgia, the number is twice that. In Moldova, experts say at least 20 percent of the country's active population -- or about 300,000 people -- work abroad, although the real figure could be as high as 1 million.

The depopulation is particularly visible in villages. Combined with the general aging of the population that accompanies a low birthrate, the result is once-thriving hamlets now filled with empty houses and elderly people.

"Not a single child has been born here since 2001. That's the end. This is a village of pensioners and after we all die, nothing will remain except for a ghost town," says Iamze Saparashvili, a 70-year-old retired nurse living in the village of Grdzelchala in eastern Georgia.

High death rates, low birthrates, out-migration, and low-to-negative population growth have become so familiar in many former communist European countries that over the past 20 years it has become the new way of life. It would be easy to imagine things could never be different.

But that would be an overly pessimistic picture. In European states that have made the transition successfully from communism to democracy and to a free-market system, population growth has resumed.

"Birthrates are still low in the countries of Central Europe, but at least in those where there has been political and economic reform, particularly in a democratic direction, death rates have gone down substantially," says Coleman of Oxford University.

"The progress of expectation of life in places like Hungary, Poland, and Czech Republic has resumed the upward trajectory which they were enjoying before the Second World War, and they are kind of rejoining Western Europe."

The transition to democracy spurred popularly demanded reforms such as a strengthening of the health-care system and at the same time bolstered market economies. Both effects have helped to raise the birthrate, lower the death rate, and reduce out-migration.

Twenty years of transition from communism has proved too short a time for many European countries to regain their balance. But the success of those that have done so at least helps point the way forward.

RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondents Mykola Zakaluzhnyi and Irena Shtogrin; Armenian Service correspondent Karlen Aslanyan; and Georgian Service correspondents Eka Kevanishvili and Nino Kharadze contributed to this report

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