Ukraine Verstehen: 37 or 65 millions? Is Ukraine’s demographic decline unavoidable?

Zelenskyy spoke of 65 million Ukrainians. His minister Dubilet instead shows 37,289 million people living in Ukraine. With such contrasting figures, is Ukraine’s demographic decline unavoidable?

Piece of analysis published on the website of the Ukraine Verstehen think tank, in German, on 19/02/2020

Short reckonings make long friends, they say. But to obtain clear and precise numbers don’t necessarily bode well for the prospects of a nation. On 23rd January, the results of an electronic census, the first of a kind in Ukraine, came as quite a shock. According to the Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers Dmytro Dubilet, there were “37,289 million people living in the country” as of 1st December 2019. This makes a sharp 28,3% decline of Ukraine’s population in less than 30 years of independence.

It is a new record low on a downward trend from the 1989 pan-Soviet census. 52 million Ukrainians were censed then. A decade later, the first nationwide census conducted in independent Ukraine counted about 48,2 million individuals. From 2014 to 2019, Petro Poroshenko branded himself the defender of a 46 million-strong country victim of Russian agression. 52, 48, 46… Such a continuous fall seemed accepted both by Ukrainians and by international observers as it fit the regional trends. According to UN projections, all of the top ten countries with fastest-shrinking populations in the world are located in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe.

Still the 23rd January announcement sent emotional shockwaves through the Ukrainian society: it somehow reflects on the shortcomings of Ukraine as a state to developed an attractive framework for for people to live in. In the face of such staggering figures, many criticised the government methodology to question results. I want here to analyse them as well as the rationale of the “Dubilet formula” behind the census. It is also important to contrast such a reality with the hopeful belief Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed in his inaugural speech. “We are 65 million Ukrainians!”, he claimed in an attempt to encourage the Ukrainian diaspora groups and migrants to renew bonds with their homeland. His hesitating attempts to translate his claim into policy highlight the many challenges to make Ukraine attractive and to halt its demographic decline.

Source: Office of the President of Ukraine

A unique kind of a census

Dmytro Dubilet identifies “three main blocks” to explain the population decline. First, it was impossible to conduct the government study in territories non-controlled by Kyiv. Some 2 million people were living in Crimea before Russia annexed it in March 2014 and about 3 million people are believed to live in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics. This is a big chunk of population that was not included in the census, although pensioners who are registered on Ukrainian-controlled yet reside on the non-controlled territories were somehow counted. Second, “some four million people emigrated from Ukraine to work and live abroad in the past decade”, Minister Dubilet estimates. Third, figures from the State Statistics Service placed Ukraine’s birth rate at almost half of the death rate in 2018, that is to say 58 births per 1000 inhabitants compared to 100 deaths per 1000 inhabitants. Unlike in Western European countries, there is virtually no immigration to compensate for such atone demographics.

Minister Dubilet and his team conducted this census in an innovative way, to say the least. They reached agreements with mobile phone operators to access some of the data of the phone users. They combined this data with sociological polls and open registers. The team also studied the State Pension Fund registers and came up with information on gender balance: there are 20,01 million women and 17,3 million men living in Ukraine. Analysts also used lists of beneficiaries of state subsidies, taxpayers, applicants to international passports, etc. The comparison of different data shaped the definition of final results.

According to the Minister, the state expenditure engaged for this census was minimal. It was anyway far less than the UAH 3 billion (about EUR 110,7 million) that were budgeted to conduct a classical nationwide census by the end of 2020. Dmytro Dubilet still considers running such a census yet he warns of potential technical issues and incidents, such as people not opening their doors to census takers. “It is an issue that came up during the 2001 census”, sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina admits. Yet she sees other kinds of evils in the details of the “Dubilet formula”: it is well-known that many Ukrainians own two phones and that many phone users are not the ones who actually bought the cells cards. Tens of thousands of IDPs still have not updated their official place of registration. Thousands of so-called “zarobitchany” (work migrants) did not leave Ukraine for good instead they travel back and forth.

Yet the most serious issue with the “Dubilet formula” and his skepticism vis-a-vis a classical nationwide census is that “his study is more of a head count”, according to Iryna Bekeshkina. The director of the institute of demographics and social studies Ella Libanova adds: “A country is neither a territory, nor a bank or a company. It is first of all people. It is important to learn about their education, ways of life, life expectancy, status on the labor market, religion, mother tongue, etc.” The “Dubilet formula” actually points to people living in Ukraine rather than to Ukrainians. It does not provide any information on ethnicity or citizenship.

A practical example of the usefulness of an in-depth census may be seen in Kyiv. With some 3,7 individuals counted, the capital city is home to 1/10 of Ukraine’s population. It is one of the most populated cities in Europe within its administrative borders. Yet how to plan and to build new metro lines, schools and hospitals without a proper census? The same goes with the state financing of the pension policy (27% of Ukraine’s population now receives pensions from the state) and more sectors. Iryna Bekeshkina calls on the government “to communicate extensively around the relevance of a census to make sure people open their doors, instead of looking for excuses for not conducting the census”.

Regardless of potential margins of error, the sharp demographic decline in Ukraine-controlled territories contrasts with the image of a dynamic and promising country Volodymyr Zelenskyy promotes in his speeches. As the president regularly urges investors, diaspora communities and recent emigrants “to come back and stay”, Ukrainians make the choice to depart instead. In December 2019, he did announce the launch of a new state program for Ukrainians living abroad aimed at creating incentives for them to return to their homeland. There are not that many details available though, apart from a set of low-rate loans to start businesses in the country.

No government in independent Ukraine has seriously dealt with managing the influx of remittances from abroad. They amounted to some EUR 12,7 billion in 2018. To value this financial added value, as well as the positive experiences and skills Ukrainians from abroad may bring to Ukraine is a way to strengthen a cross-border national community that works in the interests of one’s homeland, as it has been the case with Ireland, Italy or Hungary. In the case of Ukraine, it is a policy that goes hand in hand with reforming the state institutions and with providing perspectives to Ukraine’s population. More than to simply provide the picture of a country that loses it’s inhabitants, this “Dubilet formula” census makes for one more test of Zelenskyy’s ambitions to transform Ukraine, whether he rules over a 37,289 million-strong country or he manages to reach out to a 65 million-strong national community.

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