Monday, 1 April 2013

Ukraine's Demographic Improvements: A Case Of Too Little Too Late

WASHINGTON, DC -- One of the points I often try to make is that Russia‘s demographics have not only been improving, they’ve actually been improving faster than those of many of its close neighbors. Yesterday a commenter very kindly noted that Ukraine‘s final 2012 demographics numbers are in, so I thought I would do a quick Russia-Ukraine comparison. As you can probably tell just from looking at the above graph, Russia and Ukraine’s populations tend to move in the same direction at the same time. The correlation between the two lines is an eye popping 0.893, which is about as solid a match as you’re likely to get in the real world. Clearly, there are some very strong similarities. But what does this actually mean and what, if any, significance does it hold? Well, it strongly suggests to me that most of the movement we see in both Russian and Ukrainian demographics is the result of structural population factors, particularly the fact that the (relatively) large generation born during the 1980′s is now in prime child-bearing years. It also strongly suggests to me that the improvements in demographics indicators are not primarily the result of changes in health policy or the efficacy of medical institutions. I suppose it’s possible that Russia and Ukraine could achieve significant improvements in their medical sectors at the exact same time, but the odds are that there would be some sort of significant lag between the two. In order to get such a nearly perfect correlation, it seems clear that most of the action is on a structural level. But while the similarities are strong, there are also some pretty clear differences. For one thing, the magnitude of improvement in Russia is much greater than in Ukraine. Russia has succeeded in clawing its way all the way back to the point of natural population stability, something that will take Ukraine at least another several years if it occurs at all. That Russia has achieved natural population stability is not just important from a psychological level, it means that it has actually been able to eke out some overall population growth when migration is taken into account. This simply hasn’t happened in Ukraine, and even with 2012′s improved figures it suffered a natural population loss of 142,000 and an actual population loss that was even greater. Over the past several years Ukraine has routinely had natural populations than Russia’s in absolute terms despite the fact that Ukraine’s population is about 45.5 million and Russia’s is 143. So while there is a lot of room for debate about what’s going to happen to Russia’s population in the future, and while I understand that I’m somewhat more optimistic than most, it seems clear to me that Ukraine is headed for a future of population decline that is essentially without end. Ukraine doesn’t experience any substantial in-migration, in fact it exports a fairly large number of people, and even with relatively positive structural factors (e.g. the larger 1980′s generation in child-bearing years) it hasn’t been able to achieve natural population stability. Yes there are regional differences, Eastern Ukraine’s demographics are much more dire than the Western part of the country’s. But, if anything, these regional differences are going to become even more problematic in the future: the East-West disagreements are already exceedingly nasty, imagine how much worse they’ll get if it’s about a (relatively) young and (relatively) dynamic West subsidizing a graying and stagnant East. Considering all of this, it’s hard for me to see how Ukraine doesn’t continue to slowly empty out and wither away, or split even more clearly along linguistic and ethnic lines. One can overdo the imagery, of course, but it’s not hard to imagine there being trouble with an economically and demographically weakened country that lies at the crossroads of Russia and the European Union.

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