The Buzz

Why Ukraine Is Dying A Slow Death (Literally)

KYIV, Ukraine—Ukraine’s population decreased by about 170,000 people in 2016, the government reported last month, underscoring a demographic trend that began after the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and which threatens to derail the country’s political and economic development.

“This is a serious problem for the country,” Alex Ryabchyn, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, told The Daily Signal. “People are dying due to bad living conditions, declining environmental standards, or the war. Another problem is that the most active workforce is considering emigration.”

More people are dying than are being born in Ukraine. In 2016, every birth in Ukraine was matched by 1.5 deaths, according to a January report by the State Statistics Service of Ukraine.

By the end of 2016, Ukraine’s population had decreased by about 9.5 million from its 1993 peak of 52,244,100—a net 18 percent drop. The numbers, however, require a bit of context.

In 2014, for the first time in the post-Soviet era, Ukraine’s national population data excluded Crimea, a territory Russia annexed that year. Also omitted in 2014 were the two Russian-backed breakaway territories in the Donbas, Ukraine’s embattled southeastern territory on the Russian border.

Consequently, Ukraine’s population dropped by nearly 2.5 million in 2014 alone due to these lost territories. Yet, that year’s territory losses simply exacerbated a long-term demographic trend.

In 2013—the last year the populations in Crimea and the Donbas were counted—Ukraine’s population had already decreased by about 6.7 million people from 1993, roughly equivalent to the number of Ukrainians who were killed during World War II.

Causes

The State Statistics Service of Ukraine reported the leading cause of death in 2016 was heart disease (68 percent of deaths), followed by cancer (18 percent of deaths).

According to faculty at the Kyiv National Economic University, the country’s persistently high mortality rate is due to low-quality health care, an increase in the number of epidemic diseases, and the widespread abuse of alcohol and drugs.

Iryna Fedets, senior research fellow at the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting, a Ukrainian think tank, attributed Ukraine’s post-Soviet depopulation to poor quality of life and limited access to quality health care.

“Also, alcohol, and food—cheaper food tends to be worse for health,” Fedets said. “And the environment—pollution, and Chernobyl.”

On April 26, 1986, reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant—about 84 miles north of Kyiv—sent a plume of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The resulting fire released as much radiation as 400 Hiroshima bombs, fatally contaminating the surrounding area and sending radioactive fallout across Europe.

The disaster killed 31 in its immediate aftermath and has caused thousands of early deaths in Ukraine and throughout Eastern Europe.

Back in the USSR: 

The consequences of depopulation primarily affect young working Ukrainians.

“In terms of the economy, this will put more and more pressure on the younger, working people to provide pensions for the retired people,” Fedets said. “Those who work will have to pay more.”

A 22 percent “salary fee” is currently deducted from Ukrainians’ incomes to pay for pensions.

Beyond the economic consequences, depopulation is also a threat to Ukraine’s post-revolution political reformation.

More promising economic opportunities abroad are luring talented, educated young Ukrainians away at a moment when many say the country’s future hinges on ushering in a new generation of young political and business leaders who are uncorrupted by self-injurious Soviet cultural habits, such as a tolerance for corruption.

With 86.3 men for every 100 women, Ukraine has the sixth-lowest ratio of men to women among all countries in the world.

Also, the life expectancy difference of 10 years between Ukrainian men and women (66 and 76 years, respectively) is the fifth-biggest among all countries in the world, highlighting how lifestyle choices among Ukrainian men, particularly their proneness to alcoholism, contributes to a high mortality rate.

As a point of comparison, the average worldwide gender life expectancy gap is 4.5 years, and the average worldwide male to female ratio is 101.8 men for every 100 women, according to the Pew Research Center.

Ukraine’s life expectancy gender gap and its overall population decline reflect a demographic crisis that emerged throughout the former Soviet Union after its breakup.

Among the 10 countries in the world with the fewest men per women, seven are former Soviet countries, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study. And the six countries in the world with the biggest gender gaps in life expectancy are, in order: Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Latvia, and Kazakhstan—all former Soviet countries.

More promising economic opportunities abroad are luring talented, educated young Ukrainians away at a moment when many say the country’s future hinges on ushering in a new generation of young political and business leaders who are uncorrupted by self-injurious Soviet cultural habits, such as a tolerance for corruption.

With 86.3 men for every 100 women, Ukraine has the sixth-lowest ratio of men to women among all countries in the world.

Also, the life expectancy difference of 10 years between Ukrainian men and women (66 and 76 years, respectively) is the fifth-biggest among all countries in the world, highlighting how lifestyle choices among Ukrainian men, particularly their proneness to alcoholism, contributes to a high mortality rate.

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