Demographic Divergence - RFE/RL

Demographic Divergence

by Li Ping Luo

After 25 years of independence, some former Soviet republics are experiencing record population decline while others are soaring to new highs. This is a story about demographic destiny.

Population: Opposite trends

Source: The World Bank

The extent of population loss in many former Soviet republics has been staggering. Ukraine has lost more than 6 million people since gaining independence in 1991, while the Baltic states have lost a combined 20 percent of their population. Russia’s population briefly dipped below 142 million in 2009 -- a post-Soviet low -- but has recently rebounded due to migration, increasing fertility, and declining mortality. In the Caucasus, Armenia and Georgia have experienced similar population decreases while Azerbaijan has surged.

Data from Central Asia tell a very different story. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan all have youthful booming populations that are at historic levels. Kazakhstan’s population fell for over a decade after the dissolution mainly due to an exodus of ethnic Russians and Germans, but has grown overall thanks to strong fertility.

Migration: Russia's draw

Source: The Pew Research Center

Russia has been the main destination for migrants from the post-Soviet space. Many of these immigrants are ethnic Russians once dispersed throughout the U.S.S.R. seeking to reunite with their families, while newcomers tend to go to Russia for education or economic opportunity. A common lingua franca and shared sociocultural characteristics continue to make Russia a preferred choice for migrants from ex-Soviet republics -- especially Ukrainians, 3 million of whom now call Russia home. Baltic emigrants have also preferred to settle in Russia, although many have permanently settled in the United Kingdom or Germany.

Educated young people are disproportionately likely to emigrate. This phenomenon has led to accelerating brain drain, thereby weakening labor-market competitiveness and creating long-term structural demographic imbalances.

Fertility: Downward trajectory

Source: The World Bank

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union implemented nationwide pronatalist policies that effectively boosted birthrates in Russia. But this was a temporary boon. The disintegration of the U.S.S.R. was followed by a rapid downturn in births across all former republics. Many state-run day-care centers were shut down or privatized, meaning that childcare costs increased significantly. Economic instability discouraged large families as the cost of living increased dramatically, impoverishing many families with children.

Twenty-five years later, Russia has the one of the highest fertility rates in Europe -- though still well under 2.1, which demographers stress is the level needed for natural population balance. Central Asia experienced an overall drop in fertility, but all five of its post-Soviet republics show a fertility rate that is well above replacement level. Fertility rate is one of the determinant factors in population growth or decline.

Life Expectancy: Sweeping spectrum

Source: The World Bank

The life expectancy of a Turkmen born in 2015 is about 65 years -- well over a decade less than an Estonian. There are large disparities in life expectancy across the post-Soviet space. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- all members of the European Union and Schengen zone -- lead the pack in life expectancy at birth and GDP per capita but are experiencing severe population downturns. Russia and the Eastern European states fall in the middle of the pack. Central Asia is encountering relatively low life expectancy and high population growth rates on average.

Future: Paradigm shift

Source: The United Nations Population Division

Demographic decline worries governments because it may go hand in hand with geopolitical weight, economic might, and military prowess.

In 1989, there were 289 million Soviet citizens -- making the U.S.S.R. the third most populous country in the world, ahead of the United States and behind only India and China. Twenty-five years after its disintegration, the combined population of the 15 former republics stands at just under 294 million. But by 2050, the combined population of former Soviet countries is projected to decrease to just 284 million, a lower estimate than Nigeria’s.

Ukraine, once home to more than 50 million people, will likely continue to suffer acute population loss and will be surpassed by Uzbekistan in the coming decades. Immigration will help to slow Russia’s losses but not reverse the overall trend of decline throughout post-Soviet Europe. Only Central Asia and Azerbaijan will weather the demographic storm affecting the rest of the former Soviet Union.