Death or evo­lu­tion?

Ukraine seems to be fol­low­ing Euro­pean trends as its ru­ral ar­eas go through changes. Can and should any­thing be done about it?

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Maksym Vikhrov

Ukraine seems to be fol­low­ing Euro­pean trends as its ru­ral ar­eas go through changes. Can and should any­thing be done about it?

The no­tion that Ukraine’s ru­ral ar­eas are in de­cline has been sub­ject to pub­lic de­bate and ev­ery elec­tion cam­paign is filled with prom­ises to re­vive it. The prob­lem is very real. Ru­ral ar­eas are home to about a third of Ukraini­ans but in the last 18 years, this pop­u­la­tion has fallen by close to a quar­ter, 23%, from 16.9m to 13.0mn, while ur­ban pop­u­la­tions have de­clined just un­der 16%, from 34.8mn to 29.3mn, ac­cord­ing to Derzh­stat, the state statis­tics bureau. Still, prom­ises to re­vive the coun­try­side are lit­tle more than pop­ulism look­ing for a voter. Given so­cio-eco­nomic trends, there is no re­al­is­tic pro­gram that can save ru­ral ar­eas in Ukraine: de­pop­u­la­tion will con­tinue, in­fra­struc­ture will con­tinue to de­cay, and many vil­lages will slowly dis­ap­pear.

All this is far from be­ing a purely Ukrainian is­sue. It’s hap­pen­ing all over Europe, and in­deed, all over in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries. Driven by pro­found eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal fac­tors, no na­tional gov­ern­ment has been able to stop this trend yet. How­ever, it’s gov­ern­ments that will de­ter­mine how painful these changes are for their ru­ral cit­i­zens and how high costs at­tached to them will be for the en­tire so­ci­ety.


What does Ukraine’s coun­try­side look like in so­cio-de­mo­graphic terms? Ac­cord­ing to the In­sti­tute for De­mo­graphic and So­cial Stud­ies (IDSS) at the NAS, slightly over half of ru­ral res­i­dents, 50.3%, live in larger vil­lages, mean­ing those with a pop­u­la­tion of over 1,000, about a quar­ter, 26.3%, live in vil­lages with a pop­u­la­tion be­tween five and nine hun­dred, while 17.0% live in ham­lets of 200-499 res­i­dents and the re­main­ing 6.4% in even smaller set­tle­ments. It’s pre­cisely due to these tiny vil­lages that the over­all num­ber of ru­ral res­i­dents is shrink­ing.

Of­fi­cial statis­tics don’t paint a full pic­ture of this process: Derzh­stat, the state statis­tics bureau, says that from 1990 through 2018 only 426 pop­u­la­tion cen­ters dis­ap­peared from the map. How­ever, the real num­ber of ghost vil­lages is far larger: in 2014, 369 empty vil­lages were sim­ply not re­moved from state records, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 IDSS re­port. An­other 4,684 vil­lages were on the verge of dis­ap­pear­ing back in 2015, with less than 50 res­i­dents. In short, in the next few decades, the ru­ral pop­u­la­tion of Ukraine is likely to de­cline by an­other 17%. The most no­tice­able changes were in Sumy,

Ch­erni­hiv and Kharkiv Oblasts in the north­east­ern cor­ner of the coun­try, where de­pop­u­lated vil­lages con­sti­tute 38.5%, 32.5% and 30.5% of all ru­ral set­tle­ments.

The main rea­son for dy­ing vil­lages is de­mo­graphic. The av­er­age age in ru­ral and ur­ban ar­eas is not very dif­fer­ent, at 40.5 and 40.7, but in ru­ral ar­eas, the sit­u­a­tion is not con­sis­tent across the board: the smaller the set­tle­ment, the older its res­i­dents. Whereas vil­lages over 1,000 in pop­u­la­tion gen­er­ally have 21.0% el­derly res­i­dents, those that are de­pop­u­lated, that is, with pop­u­la­tions of less than 50, 38.0% are el­derly, com­pared to the na­tional av­er­age of 21.6% for ru­ral ar­eas. This, of course, af­fects the mor­tal­ity rate: where there are 1.9 deaths for ev­ery birth, in these dy­ing ham­lets there are 7.3 deaths for ev­ery birth. In short, where the pop­u­la­tion is more than 50% peo­ple of pen­sion­able age, ex­perts con­sider the set­tle­ment to be in de­cline, and where there are more than 65% pen­sion­ers, the set­tle­ment is dy­ing. In this num­ber are vil­lages with­out any chil­dren age 0-17, and 19% of all Ukrainian vil­lages fall into this cat­e­gory.

An­other fac­tor that has been con­tribut­ing to the de­pop­u­la­tion and ag­ing of ru­ral ar­eas is la­bor mi­gra­tion. For in­stance, in 2001, 25.6% of the res­i­dents were work­ing else­where, but by 2014, that was up to 54.9%, more than dou­ble. Of these, 66.9% had moved to other cities to work, 20.0% had moved out­side their oblast, and 12.7% were work­ing out­side the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to the same 2017 IDSS re­port. Need­less to say, a good share of these mi­grants will never come back.


When peo­ple leave ru­ral set­tle­ments, so­cio-eco­nomic prob­lems be­come more ur­gent. First of all, wages in the farm sec­tor are gen­er­ally among the worst of all sec­tors. Ac­cord­ing to Derzh­stat, the av­er­age wage in agri­cul­ture was UAH 7,500 as of July 2018, whereas it was UAH 9,800 in man­u­fac­tur­ing, UAH 9,700 in re­tail trade and so on. What’s more, vil­lages typ­i­cally have a larger share of poorly skilled or un­skilled work­ers. In 2015, 38.7% of ru­ral res­i­dents were em­ployed in the sim­plest of trades, com­pared to only 9.1% ur­ban ar­eas, whereas only 17.1% of the res­i­dents were spe­cial­ists and pro­fes­sion­als, com­pared to 35.5% in ur­ban ar­eas. The level of un­of­fi­cial em­ploy­ment is also high, with 42.6% of ru­ral res­i­dents work­ing in the shadow econ­omy in 2015, com­pared to 17.2% in ur­ban ar­eas. More­over, vil­lage in­comes tend to come from pen­sions and other ben­e­fits, the prod­ucts of peo­ple’s own gar­dens, and only 34.4% on av­er­age in the form of wages, com­pared to 55.7% in ur­ban ar­eas. Of course, ru­ral ar­eas have a lot more home­steads, where no one out­side the fam­ily is hired: home­steads con­sti­tuted 46.2% in 2014, ac­cord­ing to IDSS. How­ever, home­steading can­not sup­port ru­ral fam­i­lies with de­cent in­comes: in 2015, only 17.5% of Ukrainian home­steads owned farm­ing equip-

ment, only 15.2% hired out­side work­ers, and the sale of farm prod­ucts brought in only 11.5% of to­tal house­hold earn­ings, ac­cord­ing to IDSS. The­o­ret­i­cally, farm­ers should be the back­bone of lo­cal economies, in place of the in­ef­fi­cient col­lec­tive farm sys­tem. As of 2014, there were 52,500 busi­nesses, with an av­er­age of 1.7 per vil­lage, among whom 71.3% were ac­tu­ally farms. But they did not re­vive the la­bor mar­ket: data for 2014 shows that of those in­di­vid­u­als en­gaged in agri­cul­ture, only a tad over 3.0% ac­tu­ally worked on farms.

Nor did agri­hold­ings re­vive the ru­ral econ­omy: with all their cut­ting-edge equip­ment, they had lit­tle need for the num­ber of work­ers that had jobs at kol­hosps or at pre-soviet farm­ing en­ter­prises. Since land is the main re­source that ru­ral res­i­dents still hold and Ukraine has no land mar­ket, it’s no sur­prise that, on top of ev­ery­thing else, ru­ral poverty is higher than poverty in ur­ban ar­eas. In 2013, rel­a­tive to the sub­sis­tence min­i­mum, this in­di­ca­tor was 11.8% in ur­ban ar­eas and 28.9% in the coun­try­side ac­cord­ing to IDSS.

Poverty and de­pop­u­la­tion lead to a de­cline in the lo­cal in­fra­struc­ture as fi­nan­cial re­sources and the mar­ket grad­u­ally stop be­ing able to pro­vide sup­port. For in­stance, in ru­ral ar­eas in 2013: ● 61.8% of their house­holds still had no in­door plumb­ing, ● 45.7% had no ba­sic per­sonal ser­vices such as bar­bers, dry clean­ers, shoe re­pair,

● 41.8% had no ac­cess to timely am­bu­lance ser­vices,

● 28.5% had no health­care fa­cil­ity nearby,

● 24.4% had no daily bus ser­vice to big­ger towns,

● 23.5% had no hard­top roads what­so­ever.

In part, such prob­lems can be mit­i­gated by re­form­ing the med­i­cal and ed­u­ca­tional sys­tems, car­ry­ing out tar­geted bud­get-funded pro­grams, and so on. How­ever, as the net­work of ham­lets con­tin­ues to shrink, main­tain­ing and de­vel­op­ing this in­fra­struc­ture will be harder and harder. It’s hard to un­der­stand un­der what con­di­tions and at what cost a phar­macy, shops, hair sa­loon, daily buses to the county cen­ter, and other civ­i­lized in­fra­struc­ture might ap­pear. Of course, the sit­u­a­tion isn’t the same across the board, but the ma­jor­ity of de­pop­u­lated, half-dead vil­lages are in a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion that is sim­ply not re­solv­able.

Some might draw the con­clu­sion that Ukraine as a state has suf­fered an his­toric de­feat and pro­vide in­ca­pable of sav­ing its own ru­ral ar­eas. But in fact this kind of process has been go­ing on in ru­ral ar­eas in the Euro­pean Union for decades — and not only. One third of the EU pop­u­la­tion lives in ru­ral ar­eas and, just like in Ukraine, it is shrink­ing rapidly. Euro­stat de­mog­ra­phers say that by 2050, the EU’s ur­ban ar­eas will gain an­other 24 mil­lion, while its ru­ral pop­u­la­tion will de­cline by at least 8 mil­lion. Some tend to as­so­ciate the de­cline of the coun­try­side with the col­lapse of the USSR, but 70% of ru­ral set­tle­ments in the EU were al­ready de­pop­u­lated in the 1960s.

By the end of the 20th cen­tury, the num­ber of re­gions that were dy­ing off de­clined and sta­bi­lized at 40-45%, and re­mained in that state even at the be­gin­ning of 2010. In var­i­ous coun­tries, of course, this process has var­ied. Where in older EU mem­bers, only 35% of their ru­ral set­tle­ments are cur­rently de­pop­u­lated, in coun­tries that joined the Union since 2004, the av­er­age is 60%. In­deed, in many of them — Lithua­nia, Es­to­nia, Bul­garia, Latvia and Hun­gary — nearly 80% of ru­ral coun­ties are dy­ing off. Ac­cord­ing to the Euro­pean Ter­ri­to­rial Ob­ser­va­tory Net­work (ETON), de­pop­u­la­tion is linked to the very same so­cio-eco­nomic symp­toms as in Ukraine: shrink­ing po­ten­tial on lo­cal mar­kets, re­duced ac­cess to and qual­ity of ser­vices, de­te­ri­o­rat­ing in­fra­struc­ture, job­less­ness, an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion, and so on. And so, as in Ukraine, the neg­a­tive so­cioe­co­nomic phe­nom­ena are more felt in the vil­lage than in cities. For ex­am­ple, in 2016, em­ploy­ment lev­els were 15% lower in Bul­gar­ian coun­try­side than in its cities, 7% lower in Slo­vakia, 6% lower in Es­to­nia, and 3% lower in Hun­gary, and ac­cord­ing to the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion.

What is caus­ing both Euro­pean and Ukrainian ru­ral ar­eas to de­cline like this? Mainly it’s due to pro­found changes in the na­ture of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion. Highly ef­fi­cient equip­ment that turns the soil means mil­lions of work­ing hands are no longer needed, and where peo­ple are needed, they are hired on a sea­sonal ba­sis, of­ten from other coun­tries. In this way, coun­try dwellers have lost the eco­nomic foun­da­tions of their ex­is­tence and have had to adapt to the changes — usu­ally by mov­ing to cities.

A sim­i­lar process is un­der­way in the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, where ro­bots are grad­u­ally re­plac­ing hu­mans, but the con­se­quences of this are most felt in the vil­lage. It turns out that, com­pared to densely pop­u­lated ar­eas, vil­lage com­mu­ni­ties are far more vul­ner­a­ble: de­pop­u­la­tion af­fects them far more and lo­cal economies find it more dif­fi­cult to adapt to changes on global mar­kets. More­over, the main mi­gra­tion flows tend to come from cities, not from the coun­try­side. More­over, so­cial mo­bil­ity is far more flex­i­ble in mod­ern cities and eas­ier to take ad­van­tage of, plus there are more op­por­tu­ni­ties to im­prove one’s well-be­ing, greater ac­cess to ser­vices. Clearly, the sit­u­a­tion does not fa­vor ru­ral ar­eas.

Ob­vi­ously, it’s just a mat­ter of time be­fore Europe is com­pletely or nigh-com­pletely ur­ban­ized and there is lit­tle sense to try and stop this process. Still, na­tional gov­ern­ments can and should soften the neg­a­tive im­pact on ru­ral ar­eas in the mean­time. More­over, how­ever deeply this so­cio-eco­nomic cri­sis is hit­ting the Euro­pean coun­try­side, its worst im­pact is still sig­nif­i­cantly milder than in Ukraine. Partly this is due to the min­i­mal over­all so­cio-eco­nomic gap be­tween ru­ral and ur­ban ar­eas in the EU. Still, this is the di­rec­tion that Ukraine should move in: es­tab­lish­ing re­gional schools and dis­trict hos­pi­tals. The ques­tion is only how con­sis­tent any re­forms will be and whether the Gov­ern­ment will find the right bal­ance be­tween ef­fec­tive sup­port for ru­ral ar­eas and pop­ulist sub­si­diza­tion places that are in a ter­mi­nal cri­sis state.

Derzh­stat says that from 1990 through 2018 only 426 pop­u­la­tion cen­ters dis­ap­peared from the map. How­ever, the real num­ber of ghost vil­lages is far larger: in 2014, 369 empty vil­lages were sim­ply not re­moved from state records. An­other 4,684 vil­lages were on the verge of dis­ap­pear­ing

Source: Derzh­stat, 2018 data ex­clud­ing Crimea 30.73% 69.27% Ru­ral Ur­ban 13.01 mn 29.3 mn Where do Ukraini­ans live?

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