By Paul Goble
For most of the quarter century since Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania recovered their de facto independence, when Russian or Western analysts spoke about demographic problems in them, they focused almost entirely on the role of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in their populations.
But now, as that issue has faded – the ethnic Russian share of the populations has fallen as a result of differential birth and death rates and departures, and the role of non-citizens has declined as ever more “Russians” choose to become citizens of these countries – analysts both in Russia and the West are focusing on the real demographic challenges to these countries.
There are three main kinds: rapidly aging populations as a result of low and declining birth rates and longer live expectancies, the exodus of young and well-educated cohorts to other parts of Europe, and the declining size of the workforce capable of paying the taxes to support the elderly.
Such problems are not unique to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; but they are especially marked in these three countries. And Russian commentators are now focusing on these issues even more than on ethnic ones in their efforts to find ways to attack the Baltic countries or to gain leverage on their activities.
One Russian commentator, Aleksandr Nosovich, who is notorious for his anti-Baltic views, takes up this issue to argue that Baltic countries face “a systemic crisis, not the quiet aging” that many there already expect (rubaltic.ru/article/politika-i-obshchestvo/08122017-depopulyatsiya-pribaltiku-zhdet-sistemnyy-krizis-vmesto-tikhoy-starosti/).
All three are losing population, Lithuania and Latvia more than Estonia, because many of their working-age citizens are emigrating for jobs abroad. They can thus see a time when their total population will be much smaller than it is today (rus.err.ee/643849/jeksperty-bjut-v-nabat-zhitelej-jestonii-s-kazhdym-godom-stanovitsja-vse-menshe).
Much of this decline, Nosovich says, is among people who should be paying the taxes that will be needed to cope with the rising share of the populations in the three over the age of 65. Without their presence and their taxes, the Baltic governments will be forced to cut pensions and thus anger many older people who had been among their biggest boosters.
Maranda Bechman, chief statistician of Latvia’s Central Statistical Administration, says she doesn’t want to call this “a catastrophe, but the situation resulting from the loss of [this portion of] the population is very serious.” And Priit Riistok of Estonia’s finance ministry says exactly the same thing.
But it is not just that there won’t be enough workers to provide support for the increasing number of pensioners, the Russian commentator says. There won’t be enough to operate the economies at the current level (ru.delfi.lt/news/live/predstavili-novye-dannye-litve-grozit-demograficheskij-krizis.d?id=76503467).
To cope with that, these countries need to attract more immigrants, but they do not see where such people are likely to come from or how they could be integrated. And consequently, barring breakthroughs in productivity, the economies of the three are likely to stagnate or even decline, forcing them to try to get more help from the EU at a time the EU is cutting back.
Many in the Baltic countries believe that they can be “’the hospice of Europe,’ in which elderly residents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will peacefully live out their time,” Nosovich says. “But instead of a quiet old age and a slow decline, these countries are going to face a systemic crisis and social catastrophe.”
He says that the social and political stability in the three now resembles that in the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. “Then the Soviet authorities” received praise for their breakthroughs. But that didn’t last because the regime proved incapable of translating these into forces that would help the entire population.
Something similar is happening in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania now, Nosovich says. “The long-term demographic trends are just as fatal as the economic ones were for the Soviet Union.” Up to now, few in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius appear all that disturbed; but that will change as conditions begin to deteriorate.
Nosovich almost certainly overstates the problem especially given the history of Baltic inventiveness, but his remarks are important for two reasons. On the one hand, he is pointing to a real problem not linked to ethnicity, an implicit confession that from Moscow’s point of view that factor isn’t as important as it once was.
And on the other, his attention to this issue suggests that many in Moscow may be factoring it rather than just ethnicity in their plans to continue to seek to destabilize the Baltic countries. If that is the case, then the Balts and their friends need to take these trends seriously indeed.