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Is Ukraine Dying?

Dispatch from | Published : 20/May/2013 22:00

You gotta love a Western economist who is up-to-date on Russian idiomatic expressions. Barcelona-based Edward Hugh may just be one such polymath–well, at least he says↣ he has seen his share of Russian movies.

While his recent article↣ on Economonitor has little to do with his apparent love for Russian culture, knowledge of the idiom came in handy when Hugh looked for the appropriate metaphor to describe the economic and demographic plight of a country that has long been considered (perhaps, unfairly) as Russia’s poor cousin to the west: the Ukraine. The expression he picked was ‘suitcase mood’ (чемоданное настроение) which, broadly speaking, describes the mood of someone who has had enough and is thinking of leaving a place.

Why is this expression fitting? Ukraine, says Hugh, is simply winding down. Its young (and not so young) are leaving in droves: a 2011 report by the International Organization for Migration quoted in Hugh’s article pegs the number of emigrants (those currently living and working outside Ukraine) at 6.5 million, almost one sixth of the country’s population. That alone sounds kind of bad, but not yet terrible: after all, immigrants have been streaming out of Mexico for decades without causing too much of a concern about their patria’s survival (both Mexico’s economy and population have, in fact, been growing at a relatively brisk pace).

What makes the Ukrainian situation very different, however, is the country’s abysmally low birth rate: only 1.3 children per woman means the population is already crashing. The country’s GDP has been jumping up and down quite wildly as of late (it fell almost 15% in 2009, then recovered about 4.5% in 2010; in 2013, the projected growth is zero), but common sense suggests there is simply no way to “grow out” of a crisis when the young are leaving or thinking of leaving and the ratio of old people to active workers keeps increasing.

The danger is that the process may start feeding on itself:

The ensuing acceleration in the rate of population ageing and the proportions of older people only makes the problem of sustaining public spending on pensions and health systems worse and worse, causing the fiscal burden on those who stay to grow and grow, a development which makes it more and more attractive to leave and start up again elsewhere. And with each additional person who leaves there is another turn of the screw, and the costs of staying get higher, as do the advantages of not doing so. This is how melt down can happen.
Which leads Hugh to ponder the somewhat more philosophical question of whether countries can actually die.

His conclusions, as applied to Eastern Europe first, but also to Europe in general, at some future point, are less than heartening:

I expect (should I say “predict” in the Popperian sense, since this argument IS empirical, and is surely falsifiable) the first countries to die to be in Eastern Europe, with the most likely candidates to get the ball rolling being Belarus, Ukraine and Serbia. But then gradually this phenomenon will spread along the EU periphery, from East to South. Latvia’s own president said recently that if the net outflow of population was not stopped, within a decade the country’s independence would not be sustainable. I don’t think he was exaggerating.
I wonder why he started his reflections with Ukraine, though. From what I’ve heard (anecdotal evidence, of course, but plenty of it), one country that may have already pretty much lost a whole generation is Moldova. Its birth rate is marginally better (1.47), but given the number of Moldovans living in Russia, Italy, Portugal, France and the UK, it is not immediately obvious who is left to give those 1.47 births there. Perhaps the expression doesn’t yet exist in Romanian. If so, they should translate it into their language pronto and start using it to describe their country’s prevailing mood in the 1990s and 2000s.

Will this Russian coinage eventually spread to North America? I don’t know. But having just browsed through some personal accounts of joblessness and hopelessness in the USA published in today’s Gawker (“Unemployment Stories, Vol. 35↣”) I can’t guarantee that it won’t.

P.S. Confusingly, the Gawker story is illustrated with a large photo… from Spain. In case you were wondering why those unemployed Americans look calm, peaceful, and relatively affluent… well, it’s because they are actually not American (I think the guy on the left could be Jacques Chirac himself!).