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Latvia: Country Beset By Worrisome Decline In Birthrate

The Baltic state of Latvia is second among all European Union candidate countries in terms of population decline, exceeded only by Bulgaria. The average life expectancy for males in Latvia is one of the shortest in Europe, the number of births in the country is falling, and experts say family values have been eroded by a decade of quick market reforms.

Prague, 19 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Latvian Family Center, a nongovernmental organization, reports a disturbingly low birthrate in this Baltic country of 2.3 million. And the situation is unlikely to change anytime soon, since the number of women of reproductive age has also been falling.

Statistics compiled by the European Union confirm the results of the Latvian research. The EU's statistical office, Eurostat, says the Latvian population in 2001 dwindled by sixth-tenths of 1 percent compared to the previous year -- one of the largest declines among all EU candidate countries.

The head of the Latvian Family Center, Anita Plume, told RFE/RL that the trends revealed by its research are worrisome. "What we have discovered in our research work is that the birthrate in Latvia during the last decade has tremendously decreased. If you compare it to 1990, it was 42,000 newborn babies in a year. But [in later years], it is just only 19,000. So it decreased almost 2 1/2 times," Plume said.

Plume said the trend began to appear 10 years ago and reached its lowest point in 1997.

Plume said the number of women in Latvia having children and the total number of women of reproductive age are both decreasing. She said there are 34,000 fewer women of reproductive age than a decade ago. "So it means if this dynamic stays, then after 60 years, our population will diminish exactly by 50 percent," Plume said.

Dr. Sarmete Laimece of the Latvian Family Center said the reasons for the decline in the number of women of reproductive age in Latvia are not clear. She said it could be attributed to the declining birthrate in the country, as well as the possibility that many of these women may have emigrated from Latvia during the past decade.

Eurostat also reports that Latvia has the shortest life expectancy for males, 64.5 years, among all EU candidate countries.

Professor Peters Zvidrins is the head of the demographics center at the University of Latvia and a member of the Latvian Academy of Sciences. He told RFE/RL that he agrees in principle with the conclusions of the Latvian Family Center. "On the whole, I agree that we will stay in the stage of depopulation. Anyway, that is what the indicators say we should expect in the nearest decade -- the mortality rate will be much higher than the fertility rate," Zvidrins said.

Zvidrins said he is concerned that the Latvian authorities are doing little to provide incentives for young families to have children. Zvidrins said he worked on a governmental commission on demographics and discovered that there is no official demographic policy in the country.

Plume from the Latvian Family Center agrees with Zvidrins, saying that the authorities are doing little to change the dire demographic situation. She said the main problem is a lack of money, and that the state has some programs encouraging larger families but has no money to support those families who do have more children.

RFE/RL tried without success to reach the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs for comment on this story.

Plume also noted that Latvia has undergone a decade of market reforms, during which the country evolved from a command economy into a market economy. She said that the reforms put enormous pressure on the population and that having children became less of a priority than economic interests. "People feel instability and are very doubtful about their future because mainly people are starting their lives and settling themselves in [their chosen] career field and only later on think about children. Economics and the change of cultural values might play the most important role," Plume said.

Aigars Freimanis is the director of Latvias Fakti, an agency that conducts opinion polls in Latvia. He told RFE/RL that the current decline in the Latvian population cannot be fully explained either by a decade of market reforms or by the lack of a state policy aimed at helping young families.

Freimanis said Latvians have had small families for more than a century and that the aging of the population has been happening for decades. "A small family or a small number of kids in the family is a tradition which mainly appeared among the Latvians in the 19th century under the influence of the German culture. There was a German minority which lived in Riga and in Latvia, and [the German minority] had a tradition of small families, targeted at giving the children a higher place in the social hierarchy, at creating better possibilities for kids to make a career, targeted at their better material life. And it became a principle which Latvian society began to adhere to," Freimanis said.

Freimanis said that small families also prevailed during the Soviet time, during which Latvia had one of the lowest birthrates in the entire Soviet Union.

Its permanently low birthrate has made Latvian society one of the oldest in Europe, Freimanis said. He pointed out that reforms of Latvia's health services have been rather slow and that this has lead to a greater number of deaths among Latvia's older generation.

Emigration may have been one of the original causes of population decline in Latvia, but it is not considered to be a factor anymore. There were 2.68 million inhabitants in Latvia in 1989. The biggest emigration took place in 1992 when 60,000 citizens left the country. In 1993, emigration had decreased to about 37,000. In 2001, 5,000 people emigrated, while 1,500 relocated to Latvia.