Eastern Europe Feeds on a Shrinking Ukraine

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One of the issues complicating the Ukrainian presidential election at the end of March is that no one, including pollsters, knows how many people still live in the country. Waves of Ukrainians have been emigrating and counting them isn’t easy.

Official statistics are deceptively detailed. The latest population count, from December 2018, is 42,177,579. According to the Ukrainian State Statistical Service, there was a sharp drop in population between 2014 and 2015, when Ukraine lost Russian-annexed Crimea and couldn’t run counts in the eastern regions of the country, controlled by Russian proxies. But in recent years, there has been no sharp population decline.

Eastern Europe Feeds on a Shrinking Ukraine

That, quite likely, is inaccurate. Government statistics show a slight population increase in the first 11 months of 2018, though the number of internal refugees from the areas controlled by pro-Russian forces — the biggest source of inbound migration in recent years -- did not grow during this period. The giveaway is that data from neighboring countries show that large numbers of Ukrainians are moving, especially to eastern Europe, and more have been tempted to do so since the EU introduced visa-free travel in June 2017. 

Europe’s official statistical service, Eurostat, is slow to release migration data; the latest available are for 2017. But even those data suggest that something is wrong with the official Ukrainian numbers. Eurostat says 662,000 Ukrainians, more than any other nationality, received EU residence permits in 2017. Meanwhile, according to the Ukrainian government, only 430,290 people migrated out of Ukraine that year.

Most of the inflow went to Poland which, according to Eurostat, issued 585,439 residence permits to Ukrainians in 2017. Ukrainians were also the biggest group of permit recipients in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Lithuania. It’s hard to miss the irony here: These are all countries with anti-immigration governments, which openly fight or quietly boycott the EU’s attempts to redistribute asylum seekers throughout Europe on the grounds that they are too poor to pay for big integration efforts or that the Middle Eastern and African Migrants are too culturally dissimilar from them. 

These are, however, also countries with tight labor markets — the result of big population outflows to wealthier nations. Poland has simplified procedures for employing foreigners, used mainly for Ukrainians, which allow companies to hire people on the basis of “employment intention declarations.” In 2017, such declarations were issued for 1.7 million Ukrainians, in addition to almost 200,000 work permits. The rules were slightly tightened in 2018 to improve compliance with EU regulations, and in the first half of last year, 820,000 declarations were filed, most of them benefiting Ukrainians. It’s uncertain how many people actually took up the jobs, but it’s likely that their number in Poland alone is higher than Eurostat's residence permit count.

Other countries, too, try to lure Ukrainian workers. The Czech Republic has a simplified employment program for them, and earlier this year, the government doubled the fast-track employment quota for Ukrainians to 19,600 per year. Ukrainians are already the biggest community of legally resident foreigners in the Czech Republic — 117,000 out of a total population of 10.5 million.

Ukrainian communities are growing fast in the Baltic states too, where a worker can make far more than in Ukraine. In Lithuania they’re the largest group of resident foreigners and their number increased 55 percent last year. In Estonia, a record inflow of Ukrainians was registered in 2018. Russia, which many consider to be in a state of war with Ukraine, issued 77,000 residence permits to Ukrainians; 81,000 became Russian citizens.

It’s still hard to get a complete picture of the emigration because of unofficial and semi-official seasonal employment. In 2017, 11,000 Ukrainians were found to be illegally present in EU countries — but that’s only a fraction of those who work in Europe without obtaining any official permits. With the visa-free regime, it’s not easy to track those who do so on a seasonal basis.

Migrant remittances, which last year amounted to 13.8 percent of Ukraine’s economic output, according to the World Bank, are perhaps the best measure of the Ukrainian population outflow. 

Eastern Europe Feeds on a Shrinking Ukraine

Judging by a 35 percent jump in remittances in 2018, the biggest one-year increase since 2007, a growing number of Ukrainians are working outside their home country, and their number is likely higher than the 5.9 million estimated by the United Nations in 2017.

This is politically important. The loss of the relatively pro-Russian populations of Crimea and eastern Ukraine has boosted the election chances of pro-EU, pro-North Atlantic Treaty Organization politicians. But it’s often the most active and enterprising Ukrainians who seek their fortunes overseas; the effect of emigration may help tip the balance toward unpredictable populists. (While non-resident Ukrainians can vote, turnout is low as few bother to travel and line up at local embassies or have faith that the outcome will change much.) The current leader of the race, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a comedian and TV producer without any political experience or a coherent program.

The Ukrainian emigration is significant for Europe, too. The eastern European resistance to accepting refugees isn’t anti-immigrant sentiment per se: it’s anti-Muslim and often racist, and it’s based on a common perception that immigrants from outside Europe won’t want to work or blend in. Such discrimination is deeply ingrained, but to combat it, Western European countries could work harder to improve their own records on integrating immigrants.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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