30 Years After: How a State Dies

Brain drain and population loss are crippling the EU’s eastern countries, and the epidemic could spread westward. From Hospodarske noviny.

by Martin Ehl 4 December 2019

Looking back, Irina Rubinchik is certain that her family’s decision to leave Latvia for Israel was the right thing to do. Starting life over in Israel was a challenge for Irina, her husband Greg, and their two children. For the first year and a half, they lived on savings and the proceeds from the sale of their house in Riga, as Greg, 50, searched for work and Irina picked up the occasional short-term job.


Most important, she says, was the change in the people around them. “I love the openness of people here and their smiling faces. We escaped from a deteriorating, depressed society in Latvia. I tried my bit to make things better, although it didn’t work out,” says Irina, who worked as a journalist, started several non-governmental organizations, and later held an office job at the U.S. Embassy in Riga.


Untypical as it may be, Irina’s story illustrates how former socialist states are losing their young and educated populations to emigration.


Her homeland of Latvia is worst off in this respect among the newer EU members – followed by Lithuania and Bulgaria. The Czech Republic has so far been immune to a comparable wave of emigration, but it shares a related social problem with these countries: a low birth rate. Smaller families are one outcome of the social ferment of 30 years ago, when previously unimaginable opportunities opened up for young people – with starting a family just one of the options.


Population loss is a long-term problem for the former Eastern bloc members of the EU, a phenomenon which will continue to shape economic and social life into the future. But then, social turmoil is something most of these states experienced numerous times during the 20th century, especially those where mindsets that took root in the Soviet era persist.


Where the People Are Nicer


Back in Latvia, Irina’s husband had a good job in upper management. They had a house and a solid position in society, with the salary to go with it. Still, they had always felt a pull toward Israel, where Greg’s parents lived, and they traveled there often for visits.


“Ever since I turned 18, my friends started going abroad. My two closest friends left the day after school ended – one for Russia and one for Germany. By now, 90 percent of my classmates live abroad,” Irina says. Her family is Russian speaking but with prewar roots in Latvia, placing them apart from the large numbers of Russian speakers who arrived during the half-century under Soviet rule.


Although she speaks fluent Latvian and had worked in the Latvian-language media, after the country regained its independence, Latvians stigmatized her, along with most of the Russian-speaking minority, as occupiers.


The steadily rising mood of intolerance and the anti-Semitic whispers eventually convinced Irina and Greg that Latvia was not a good place for their children to grow up. This was a country, according to them, where a school said to be one of the best in Riga was incapable of giving their children a decent education, where they feared for their kids’ safety on the bus that took them to school, where Irina was increasingly abused with aggressive remarks about her Russian origins, and where they had lost most of their friends.


Latvians in Georgia. Image by Vladimer Shioshvili/Flickr.


“Except for my mother and sister, we have no close ties to anyone in Latvia now. In fact, the only thing keeping us there was money, the lower cost of living compared to Israel – until the moment came when we said that other values were more important,” Irina says. She now has a steady job as a school assistant working with autistic children and she gives zumba lessons on the side, so her kids can have at least one after-school hobby – a big change from Latvia, where schools offer many extra-curricular activities.


Israel may not be a frequent destination for Latvian emigrants, but Irina and Greg’s tale is one among thousands that together form a mosaic depicting the gradual dying out of Latvian society.


Waves, Streams, and Currents: Latvia’s Turbulent Century


A distinctive feature of Latvia’s post-Soviet course has been the presence of a large Russian minority, most of whom came here during the Soviet occupation, when Moscow planned for Riga to become the industrial center of a new Baltic region formed from the fragments of the once-independent nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.


The first big wave of emigration after 1991 naturally saw many Russians leave for their ancestral homeland. Later, Latvians began streaming west in search of better lives, a trend that spiked after EU entry in 2004. Another peak coincided with the financial crisis of 2008-2010. Few EU countries were hit as hard as Latvia, where the economy contracted by almost one-quarter in just 12 months.


Demographic changes both helped to bring on the crisis and made it deeper, explains Aija Zobena, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Latvia.


“The aging of our population is one of the processes of transformation. The effects are easiest to see in the countryside – in the first years after the change [to democracy], people were left to themselves, as if they should be able to survive on their own by virtue of living in the country,” she says.


“Many people simply picked up and left, mainly the young, the educated, and the motivated. This was followed by an internal migration, as many rural people moved to the cities, mainly Riga. Social inequality in Latvia rises the further you are from the capital. We can say that quality of life is significantly higher within a radius of 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) from the metropolis, than in the rest of the country,” Zobena remarks.


Over the turbulent course of the 20th century, Latvians experienced emigration in all its varieties. During two Soviet occupations and the intervening World War II, the population fell by a third from the level recorded after independence in 1918. In 1944 alone, with memories of the first Soviet occupation in 1940 still fresh, thousands fled the advancing Red Army. They settled in the United States, Canada, and Australia – still home to a Latvian community – and many later returned to help rebuild the Latvian state as the Soviet Union collapsed. Krisjanis Karins, the current prime minister, is one of the U.S.-born contingent.


Veteran diplomat and parliamentarian Ojars Eriks Kalnins is another who returned to his ancestral home three decades ago.


“I would never have considered doing it if I hadn’t visited Latvia in the 1970s. It was very emotional for me to see the things my parents told me about, for the first time,” Kalnins recalls. Born in a refugee camp in Germany after World War II, he grew up in the United States, began working for Latvian independence and became a diplomat for the new state in 1991, finally returning to the land of his parents permanently in the mid-1990s.


Observations of the Latvian character brought Kalnins and Irina Rubinchik to reach an identical, unexpected conclusion – that the mentality of Latvians is stalled in the ways of the old regime. “It’s disappointing to see how long it’s taking to change the old Soviet system. For instance, I’m aware that some resent that I, or the prime minister – (both) Western Latvians – laugh a lot,” he says.


Rubinchik is less positive as she identifies some of the main reasons why she and her family left the country: the people’s self-isolation, lack of trust, nationalism (on both sides), and suspicion of anything foreign.


Family Support to Prevent Emigration


The change of regimes in the early 1990s effected a sharp break with the demographic policies of the past, explains Professor Jitka Rychtarikova, a demographer at Charles University in Prague.


“Birth rates and families were supported in the former socialist states as a counterweight to the shortage of workers. Afterward, the family became a private affair and a gap started appearing between the standard of living of those who had children and those who didn’t,” Rychtarikova says.


Family support policies, not migration, have the greatest effect on demographic development, she argues. “The point is to enlarge the space for choice, so that a person who wants to work can place their child in a nursery or a similar facility, and to adapt the working process to this. In (the Czech Republic), we are very inflexible in both regards.”


A glance at graphs of demographic change in the Baltic states reveals that the region continues to work through its Soviet heritage. Population data from the 1980s show a sharp rise concurrent with the official promotion of the three-child policy; another chart highlights the huge gender gap in life expectancy: in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, riskier lifestyles (mainly high alcohol consumption) continue to drastically reduce men’s average lifespan compared to that of women.


State policy can, however, mitigate against demographic collapse even in bad times, Zobena, the sociologist and demographer, believes. She notes that during the financial crisis, Estonia actually pushed the birth rate higher by improving access to preschools. “A large number of women lost their jobs during the crisis, but thanks to strong social support, they continued having children,” she says.


State family policies rooted in the socialist past, such as large numbers of preschools and long maternity and family leaves, still loom large in the old Eastern bloc. Latvia’s family leave policy, for instance, allows a parent to take 18 months off work, on full pay.


“Family support – or we can say, rather, shrinking the difference in living standards between families with children and childless families – is critical for future population growth,” Professor Rychtarikova says.


Compared to the Baltic states, the Czech Republic has not undergone such a brutal demographic shift in the past 30 years. Both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are seen as relatively attractive for migrants. The influx of tens of thousands of Ukrainians to the Czech Republic in 2008, before the outbreak of the financial crisis, illustrates this. The Czechs also escaped the drastic fall in living standards other former socialist countries experienced in the 1990s. Life expectancy charts show that the Czech health system withstood regime change and economic transformation much better than the Baltic states.


In Central Europe, where lifespans are rising across the board, the populace is falling into a different kind of trap. They will have longer lives, but most likely poorer ones, because pension systems are unable to cope with the rising number of elderly people.


This unwelcome scenario is not only important for the physical and cultural survival of small nations like Latvia. Although the Central European countries of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia will see a relatively modest population decline of 4 percent by 2040, according to UN estimates, the 15-64 age group could shrink by 12 percent, more than the forecast for Western Europe. The coming decades will sorely test the sustainability of social and pension systems in the region.


Moody’s rating agency warned of just this problem in May, saying demographic change may soon become a very serious problem in these countries, one that could negatively affect assessments of their economic growth and potential to attract investment.


More and more, economists are saying immigration will be needed to maintain pension systems as we now know them and, indeed, entire economies. Charles University’s Rychtarikova is skeptical of the notion that migration can be a tool to counteract population loss, although for different reasons than might be expected. “It’s true that the Ukrainians and Vietnamese who come here are of reproductive age, but they soon adapt to our conditions. For instance, I supervised a dissertation whose author showed that birth rates in the Vietnamese community are even lower than among people with Czech citizenship,” she says.


Unlike the Latvians, Slovaks, Poles, and more recently Hungarians, the Czechs have typically not seen emigration as a solution to domestic problems – another reason the population figures have stayed buoyant. This is in sharp contrast to Latvia, which lost practically an entire generation of young women born during the 1980s Soviet baby boom, Zobena says. Like Irina Rubinchik’s classmates, those young women chose emigration.


Poland and Slovakia are examples of how emigration can stir up social change and affect daily life in the home country, even if few migrants eventually return home. The Czech case is different. Embracing openness in the 1990s, more recently the Czechs have been turning away from the world, with anti-migrant propaganda playing its part – even though, unlike Hungary, this country has practically no experience with large numbers of migrants. Perhaps the Czechs most resemble the Latvians, who as a nation have to a large degree mentally closed up shop as a defense against Russian and Soviet influences.


“What was so bad about Latvia that you decided to leave?” This was the interview question Irina found hardest to answer. “Latvia is a small, beautiful, green country. The problem is with the people. Unless Latvians can learn to be tolerant, accepting, to live with people from outside without hatred, to be open, half the population will disappear in the near future.


“They don’t want anyone near them, but how can you survive in a global world if you confine yourself to a single village and don’t talk to people around you?” she asks.


Her words cut to the bone of the problem facing all the states that lived through decades of communist rule, even now, 30 years after the fall of socialism.

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