The unprecedented decline of the population in Eastern Europe during the post-communist era (1990 – present) was more than just a simple rise in death rates and drop in birth rates. Many of the best and brightest from these countries were still alive and doing well, just not in their homelands. One of the most common traits of Eastern Europeans during this period has been an urge to move westward. On more occasions than I can recount, I have been told by Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians and Latvians among others, that they are moving to central or western Europe as soon as possible. They are ready to turn a long-awaited dream into reality. Millions of Eastern Europeans have voted with their feet and fled to more prosperous places. The Romanians prefer Italy, Poles Great Britain, Hungarians Germany, Ukrainians Poland and Bulgarians almost anywhere but their own country. Millions of Eastern Europeans are now scattered across the continent.
This situation has been exacerbated by EU membership, for all but a few of these countries (Ukraine, Moldova and all the Balkan countries except for Croatia). The borders between East and West have all but dissolved in much of Europe – as their young, intelligent, upwardly mobile citizens flee to the west, draining their homelands of brain and manpower. Relatively few of them return for anything other than a visit. Better wages, abundant jobs and a comfortable lifestyle are what attracts them to western and central Europe. This trend has begun to abate over the past few years as more job opportunities have become available in the growing economies of Eastern European nations. The cost of living is also much lower. The migration westward has slowed, but not before it caused grievous harm to the economic growth prospects of Eastern Europe. For example, Slovakia has 80,000 unfilled positions due to skills and labor shortages. The people who would have taken those jobs are now living somewhere beyond the western horizon. Migration to the near abroad has sapped the region of millions of its most talented citizens. This trend has only added to the greatest regional population decline in modern history.
The Ever Deepening Decline – Future Uncertain
The reasons for the demographic decline in Eastern Europe cannot just be put down to mass economic migration. The problem is multifaceted. Start with the fact that economic hardship was a way of life throughout the 1990’s in every country east of the former Iron Curtain. The transition from communism to capitalism was a wild roller coaster ride at best. Living standards dropped as the state subsidized economic model vanished almost overnight. Unemployment soared as heavy industry buckled under the weight of international competition. Raising a family became increasingly difficult. Anyone that had thoughts of starting a family had to reconsider or do so under the most trying economic and social circumstances. Politics was fraught with instability and the future was uncertain. Just earning enough to live on was difficult. The societal instability caused birth rates to plummet. At the same time, economic woes and faltering health care meant death rates soared.
At the same time, many turned to alcohol and drugs for succor. Those who could migrate to other parts of Europe or far flung areas often did. Those left behind had to fend for themselves. The vast amount of state support that had sustained these societies over four decades was nowhere to be found. It was every man and woman for themselves. Many did not survive the experience. Those who did are to be commended. Since 1990, the United Nations estimates that the population of Eastern Europe dropped by 18 million. Nothing has ever been seen like this in a world predicated upon growth. And the demographic decline continues. In many of these countries the situation may get worse. If demographics are destiny then Eastern Europe is looking at a much less crowded future.
Fathomless Depths – Communism’s Last Legacy
The loss of 18 million people is hard to fathom, especially when the world population has enjoyed explosive -some might say frightening – growth. Eastern Europe’s population shows no signs of rising anytime soon. Currently, the region is home to the top ten nations with the fastest declining populations in the world. This situation looks primed to accelerate in the coming years. Keep in mind, these dire figures are based upon current trends and the aging of these societies. Bulgaria will be the hardest hit, projected to lose almost a quarter of its population by 2050. Ukraine and Poland are projected to lose over five and a half million people each. If one adds up the total projected population loss of all ten nations by the year 2050 it comes to almost 22 million. That would mean in a sixty-year period (1990 – 2050) Eastern Europe would have lost 40 million people. This figure is difficult to fathom and begs the question of what can be done to stop or at least slow the decline.
The region’s governments have tried a variety of policies. One of the most bizarre was a recent government campaign in Poland telling the populace to “breed like rabbits.” The statistics show they are still breeding like hermits. The campaign went nowhere. If a country as fervently Roman Catholic as Poland cannot stem the current trend, then it is doubtful any others can. There is a silver lining in this downward slide. Less people will mean more living space. As the rest of the world gets more overcrowded Eastern Europe is emptying out. Does it really matter if Bulgaria has 8.9 million people as they did in 1990 as compared with a projected 5.4 million in 2050? In the context of keeping a modern economy growing, it certainly does. Will there be enough workers to support pensioners? Most likely not. Some commentators have offered the suggestion of replenishing the population with migrants from the war torn Middle East as a possible solution. This is an exceedingly tough sell in countries that labored under Soviet occupation for over forty years. Resistance is bolstered by the fear engendered by population loss. If nations such as Bulgaria and Latvia, lose millions more people they could either cease to exist or be swamped by outsiders. These are issues no one wants to contemplate, let alone address. The only thing certain, is that the decline will continue. Communism in Eastern Europe may be over, but its painful legacy lives on.