Ukraine’s ‘brain drain’ ex­o­dus In­tel­lec­tu­als, work­ers es­cape chaos for the West

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY TED PHILLIPS

KHARKIV, UKRAINE | Elvira Gor­bunova came to Kharkiv in Jan­uary, leav­ing her home in sep­a­ratist-con­trolled Krasny Luch to es­cape dan­gers of living in a war zone. But she hopes Ukraine’s sec­ond-largest city is just a stop on her fam­ily’s jour­ney to North Amer­ica.

“I don’t think we have any prospects here in Ukraine — plus we have a 1-year-old child,” said Ms. Gor­bunova, a 30-year-old school­teacher who is now a stay-at-home mother. “An­other coun­try will have more op­por­tu­ni­ties for a good ed­u­ca­tion for him and a bet­ter fu­ture than here.”

The Gor­buno­vas are just a few in a long line of peo­ple try­ing to get out of the coun­try since the con­flict and eco­nomic cri­sis be­tween the gov­ern­ment and Rus­sia-backed sep­a­ratists ex­ploded last year, with some wor­ry­ing that Ukraine will lose some of its best and bright­est.

“The lat­est events in Ukraine [have] def­i­nitely es­ca­lated the brain drain,” said Olek­siy Poz­niak, head of the migration depart­ment in the Kiev-based De­mo­graph­ics and So­ci­ol­ogy In­sti­tute. “The war is not at fault as much as the eco­nomic cri­sis that in­creased the gap be­tween the in­comes of the pro­fes­sion­als in Ukraine and in the West.”

Brain­power has long been a ma­jor Ukrainian ex­port. The col­lapse of the Soviet Union and sub­se­quent eco­nomic cri­sis drove hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple, many highly skilled and ed­u­cated, to leave an­nu­ally in the 1990s, ac­cord­ing to Ukrainian gov­ern­ment fig­ures cited in a 2012 migration study pre­pared for the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion.

The drain slowed dramatically in the 2000s, fall­ing be­low 20,000 by 2010. Still, the con­se­quences of con­tin­ued em­i­gra­tion by Ukraine’s elite re­mains a prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to the study, caus­ing “Ukraine’s loss of the most ed­u­cated, qual­i­fied, ac­tive and en­tre­pre­neur­ial pop­u­la­tion.” Migration and em­i­gra­tion con­trib­ute to a lack of med­i­cal, ed­u­ca­tional and en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sion­als in lo­cal la­bor mar­kets, the study said.

The war and the coun­try’s eco­nomic col­lapse over the past year have many young peo­ple think­ing harder now about ex­chang­ing the un­cer­tainty of their moth­er­land for the un­cer­tain­ties and op­por­tu­ni­ties of new lives in an­other coun­try. Sev­eral ex­perts said the im­pact of to­day’s cri­sis on em­i­gra­tion hasn’t yet shown up in statis­tics.

The con­flict in Ukraine has dis­placed 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple within the coun­try, and an­other 777,355 have sought asy­lum or other means of re­set­tling in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries — mostly in Rus­sia — ac­cord­ing to re­cent fig­ures from the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees. Com­bined, that’s roughly 4.4 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion in a coun­try that had 45.4 mil­lion peo­ple in 2014, ac­cord­ing to the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment.

A grow­ing in­ter­est in leav­ing has been a boon for MBA Strat­egy, a Kiev-based com­pany that pre­pares peo­ple to take stan­dard­ized tests like the Gen­eral Man­age­ment Ad­mis­sion Test (GMAT) or English pro­fi­ciency ex­ams that are needed to en­ter busi­ness schools abroad, its pres­i­dent, Dmitriy Bon­dar, said.

Though the com­pany has of­fices in Rus­sia and Kaza­khstan, Mr. Bon­dar said the firm’s big­gest growth lately has been in Ukraine.

Though he de­clined to give en­roll­ment fig­ures, he said that the num­ber of Ukrainian stu­dents in their early 20s tak­ing In­ter­na­tional English Lan­guage Testing Sys­tem prep cour­ses has in­creased by two to three times in less than a year.

“They want just to move,” Mr. Bon­dar said. “The sit­u­a­tion has changed in the maybe last eight to 10 months, and maybe peo­ple de­cided it’s a good mo­ment to change coun­tries.”

Dis­placed and dis­tressed

The Kharkiv re­gion has swelled with the in­flux of 157,800 peo­ple dis­placed since the fight­ing be­gan last year, ac­cord­ing to UNCHR data. The front lines of the fight­ing are just four hours away by car in a city that had a pre­war pop­u­la­tion of 1.4 mil­lion.

Ear­lier this month the Kharkiv pass­port of­fice had about 60 peo­ple lining up out­side to sub­mit doc­u­ments at mid­day. Hands rose to pass doc­u­ments when the front door cracked open. Stand­ing out­side the of­fice, Irina Sorokina, 23 said she and her boyfriend, Ro­man Zhuikov, 20, want to go to Poland.

“Just to find work there,” Ms. Sorokina said. Per­ma­nently, if pos­si­ble, she added.

Ms. Sorokina has an en­gi­neer­ing de­gree, and Mr. Zhuikov wants to work in in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and com­puter pro­gram­ming, but both work as bar­tenders now and hope to find some­thing bet­ter or even start their own busi­ness in the West.

“There’s a lot of work here, but it’s hard to start some­thing that be­longs to you,” Ms. Sorokina said. “It’s hard to make much money here, and you have to work re­ally hard.”

At the V.N. Karazin Kharkiv Na­tional Uni­ver­sity, some stu­dents said they al­ready have their eyes on the ex­its, ei­ther for work or for per­ma­nent re­lo­ca­tion. Yuri Kulov, 25, and his wife Ann, 21, are con­sid­er­ing teach­ing English in China af­ter she grad­u­ates with a psy­chol­ogy de­gree. Mr. Kulov was also trained as a psy­chol­o­gist but found it didn’t pay.

“We’re think­ing the bet­ter fu­ture will be in an­other coun­try,” he said.

“Our sit­u­a­tion has be­come worse and worse,” Mrs. Kulov said of Ukraine. “This sit­u­a­tion will be over in 10 years, be­cause maybe the faces in gov­ern­ment will change, but it needs more time to change.”

Ukraine’s eco­nomic out­look is grim. Real GDP is ex­pected to con­tract by 6 per­cent this year, fol­low­ing a 7.5 per­cent fall last year and zero growth in 2013, Moody’s In­vestors Ser­vice said in a re­port last month.

“The scale and tim­ing of any re­cov­ery af­ter 2015 will be heav­ily de­pen­dent upon whether the mil­i­tary con­flict is re­solved and the ex­tent to which Ukraine’s ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity is re­stored,” Moody’s said.

In sep­a­ratist-con­trolled Donetsk, where the booms of shelling echoed through the city cen­ter on a re­cent night this month de­spite a cease-fire, eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity limps along amid shut­tered shops and busi­nesses.

Alexan­dra Korobkova, 21, a fi­nance stu­dent, walked out of a Donetsk em­ploy­ment of­fice with­out find­ing work.

“I am not likely to find a job [re­lated] to my de­gree,” Ms. Korobkova said.

“I would like to move to Canada — the cli­mate is al­most the same as Ukraine,” she added, ex­plain­ing she’s al­ready look­ing for jobs there. “I have al­ways dreamed of leav­ing here, but af­ter the be­gin­ning of the con­flict, I started think­ing more about it.”

Some say that be­cause so many are leav­ing, op­por­tu­ni­ties are open­ing up in the coun­try.

At a veg­etable and fruit stand in the mar­ket in Gorlovka, an­other sep­a­ratist-held city in the east, An­ton Bo­brov, 28, said he had been a lawyer work­ing in the Ukrainian jus­tice min­istry when the war started.

“It was closed, and I didn’t want to go to [Ukrainian-con­trolled ter­ri­tory],” Mr. Bo­brov said, adding that there are many open­ings for lawyers in the self-pro­claimed “Donetsk Peo­ple’s Repub­lic” be­cause so many peo­ple fled. Still, it isn’t easy to leave, he added. “I had a dream to go to Amer­ica — every­body wanted to move to Amer­ica when they’re young,” Mr. Bo­brov said. “I don’t [speak] English or [have] money to go, and I don’t have any­body to go to. And what’s more, I have a small child, and now it’s get­ting dif­fi­cult [to] move, and my wife doesn’t want to.”

In Kiev, last year’s Maidan revo­lu­tion ush­ered in an era of con­flict and un­cer­tainty, with the prospect of a new pro-West­ern gov­ern­ment reach­ing out to Europe and the U.S. bal­anced by protests and di­vi­sion in the Rus­sia-ori­ented East.

Smok­ing cig­a­rettes across the street from the Taras Shevchenko Na­tional Uni­ver­sity, a grand red neo­clas­si­cal build­ing in the heart of the cap­i­tal, some so­cial science stu­dents said they had thoughts about leav­ing.

“Many peo­ple want to leave be­cause there’s no fu­ture in this coun­try,” said Anas­tasiia Doroshenko, 21.

But Mykyta Bil­i­aiev, 22, said Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko’s ad­min­is­tra­tion was mak­ing new pathways for the younger gen­er­a­tion to work in gov­ern­ment that hadn’t ex­isted be­fore. Still, life af­ter grad­u­a­tion is hard to con­tem­plate while the war in the east grinds on.

“Maybe af­ter we fin­ish, we will go into the army,” Mr. Bil­i­aiev said. He added, “It’s dif­fi­cult to dream of the fu­ture, be­cause first we need peace.”

Olga Ru­denko in Kiev con­trib­uted to this re­port.


The se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion and lack of eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties has Ukraini­ans leav­ing in droves for the West. How­ever, some say the ex­o­dus will al­low for new op­por­tu­ni­ties at home.

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