With the worst demographic decline in Europe, Moldova is struggling to remain a ‘viable state’, says its foreign minister.
From the Black Sea to the Adriatic, the issue of falling population numbers is a drama. In Moldova, it is a trauma. Since 1989, its population has shrunk by almost a third and in 15 years it may be only just over half of what it was back then.
In terms of demographics, these are the worst figures in the whole of Europe.
Such a devastating loss of population is already causing severe problems such as labour shortages and a lack of professionals such as doctors, but these issues afflict other parts of post-communist Europe too. What is different is that population shrinkage in Moldova has begun to be discussed in existential terms.
Ever since independence in 1991, Moldova has been wracked by political upheaval, poverty and corruption on a grand scale.
It has also been divided between those who want its future tied to that of the EU and the West, including those who want unification with Romania, versus those who want closer ties to Russia.
But when Aureliu Ciocoi, the foreign minister, says that he believes his country has about a decade to sort its problems out, he also has population loss in mind.
“Our mission,” Ciocoi told BIRN, “is to ensure that the state remains a viable state.”
Until July 2019, one of the biggest problems when it came to analysing Moldova’s demographic issues was that there was no credible population figure (see box).
Thanks to new emigration estimates, that number was reckoned to be 2.68 million on I January 2019. This represented a massive 1.8 per cent loss of population since the year before. One year later, Moldova’s population will have dropped again.
The 2019 figure does not include Transnistria, but if one includes a rough estimate of the number of people in the breakaway region, the population of the whole of Moldova would be about three million.
A study by the UN’s Population Fund and Moldova’s Centre for Demographic Research estimates that by 2035 the country’s population, without Transnistria, will have shrunk to 2.08 million, a decrease of 22.38 per cent from 2019.
If one were to estimate that Transnistria’s population had also dropped by about a quarter and is by then about 300,000, the population of the entire country will by then have fallen by a whopping 45 per cent since 1989.
Even before the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, several thousand Moldovan Jews were able to leave for Israel and their emigration picked up massively in the early 1990s. Now only a remnant of the once huge Bessarabian community remains.
The early 1990s then saw others join what is called the period of “ethnic migration”, especially Russians and Ukrainians.
Tens of thousands were then displaced domestically and over the country’s borders by the violent conflict of 1992, which saw Russia support the secession of the unrecognised statelet of Transnistria.
The opening of Moldova’s frontiers and the collapse of its old Soviet economy led initially to large numbers of Moldovans travelling abroad as small-time traders, rather than migrants.
Then, in 1998, as the Russian financial crisis sent further shock waves across the region, Moldovans began to leave in large numbers to live in Russia’s big cities where there was work, especially in markets and in construction and elsewhere as seasonal labourers.
At the same time, Moldovans began to explore the West for the first time, with large numbers starting to work illegally, especially in Italy where it was easy for them to learn Italian since Romanian (or Moldovan, as some call it) is a Latin language.
While no visa was required to go to Russia, visas were hard to get for Western countries. And while Romania made it easy for most Moldovans to get Romanian citizenship, it was initially of little interest to most Moldovans as Romanians could not travel westwards for work either.
Bulgaria also gives passports to a small number of ethnic Bulgarians in Moldova plus the members of the minority Gagauz community.
In 2002, an amnesty in Italy legalised Moldovans who had been working illegally and gave them the opportunity to bring their families. This was the first major opening for legal emigration to a Western country.
In 2007, Romania joined the European Union, though Romanians were unable to work legally in all EU countries for some years. Still, from now on, if they acquired Romanian passports, Moldovans could work wherever Romanians could.
However, by doing so it meant that they now appeared in foreign statistics as Romanians and so their numbers were almost impossible to track.
In 2014, Moldovans were given the right to visa-free travel to the EU’s border-free Schengen zone, which meant that anyone who did not have a Romanian or Bulgarian passport could now travel there and work illegally if they wanted.
Today it is a huge challenge to determine where Moldovans abroad are. As there is no definition of what constitutes someone who should count as a member of the diaspora, its numbers range from 800,000 to two million.
Up to the mid 2000s, more went to Russia than to the West, but now the preponderance of those leaving to live and work abroad go westward.
More women went to Italy where many work as “badanti” looking after elderly people. Especially in the early years, they left their children at home with their grandparents. At the same time, more men went to work in Russia.
In 2019, there were twice as many Moldovan women as men in Italy, but this balance could have changed in recent years as more Moldovans live and work abroad as Romanian citizens.
According to sociologist Vadim Pistrinciuc, approximately half a million Moldovans live in Russia, many of whom now have Russian citizenship. The Romanian foreign ministry says another half a million have Romanian citizenship, of whom about half are believed to live in Romania.
Italian statistics show that 125,285 Moldovans live in Italy but no one knows how many of the 1.2 million Romanians registered there are Moldovans, or how many Moldovans there are amongst the 1.78 million Romanians registered in Spain, Germany and Britain.
Given the low level of salaries in Moldova, what is extraordinary is not just the high numbers of Moldovans leaving, but also the sheer volume of people coming and going, according to Eliahu Ben Moshe, an Israeli expert helping the National Bureau of Statistics to calculate reliable numbers.
In 2017, for example, 159,000 left the country but almost 110,000 returned, meaning a net loss of 49,400 people. In 2016, 153,200 left but 107,200 returned, meaning a net emigration figure of almost 46,000.
More young leave than others though increasingly whole families are going. In 2017, some 5 per cent of males aged 20-24 left the country and in the last five years 20 per cent of that age group has gone.
“This is an exodus,” says Ben Moshe said. “We are talking of a very high level of emigration.”
What these figures do not show, Ben Moshe added, are the “crazy” number of people taking advantage of cheap flights and the ease with which they can travel and work abroad for short periods of a few months at a time, meaning that they are still resident in Moldova.
He said these numbers are so high that “they are challenging the definition of migration” and that he sees this as “a new version of commuting”.
It is not hard to understand why this is happening.
A mid-level civil servant said her husband works in a hotel in a London suburb while he acquires the diploma needed for him to work as an IT programmer, which is his real profession. They have calculated that, if he sticks out being separated from the family, he can pay off their 30-year mortgage in two years.
Such high levels of emigration mean that labour shortages are emerging in Moldova but often the work available is not in the places where there is unemployment.
However, employers are finding that instead of moving to where there is work and paying rent to live there, those disposed to move are going abroad instead and paying rent there because the pay, conditions and career opportunities are so much better.
What this means is that while 2.68 million may be the first reliable figure in years for the population of government-controlled Moldova — the number actually present in the country on any given day could be much less.
Labour shortages also mean that farmers cannot find enough people to work on bringing in the harvest, including in the vineyards that produce Moldova’s valuable wine and brandy exports. Now Uzbeks and Kazakhs, who cannot work in the EU, are coming as seasonal labourers, including to Transnistria.
In a similar displacement, Moldovan doctors are taking up the posts of Romanian doctors who have gone to Western Europe but, in this case, no one is replacing them at home. In 2018, some 600 doctors applied to the Ministry of Health for the documents they need to be able to work abroad, Pistrinciuc said.
Many of Moldova’s best and brightest will not need to worry about such formalities. According to Olga Gagauz, the deputy director of the National Institute for Economic Research, while there are some 100,000 university level students in Moldova, there are also about 25,000 Moldovans studying abroad. Once they graduate, “most stay”, she said.
On a Saturday afternoon, Tiraspol, the tiny capital of Transnistria, seems even dozier and emptier than Chisinau. But, here, just like in the Moldovan capital, there are adverts and offices for agencies that match workers and companies in the EU.
Between the world wars, most of what is now Transnistria was part of the Soviet Union, unlike the rest of Moldova, which was part of Romania.
For Moldovans to get a Romanian passport, they have to show that their ancestors were citizens of Romania up to 1940. This means that far fewer people in Transnistria can get Romanian passports and, in the past, far more went to work in Russia than in the West compared with the rest of Moldova.
Increasingly, however, higher salaries are luring them to either jobs with work permits in the EU or to use their Moldovan passports to go and work illegally in Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere.
In 2015, according to the Transnistrian census, the population was reckoned to be 475,373, of whom 70,587 were “temporarily absent”.
Andrei Crivenco, a political geographer at Tiraspol’s Shevchenko University, said this shows “more or less the real picture” and emphasised that there is no other available data. Gagauz, however, estimates that today the population is about 350,000.
When someone travels via Chisinau airport or through border points under Moldovan government control, statistics are collected. However, no data is collected by Transnistrian border guards and, short of writing things down by hand, they could not even do so since Transnistrian identity cards are not biometric and, being unrecognised, its passports are not valid for travel anywhere.
From Moldova to Croatia, emigration is only one side of the demography issue — the other shows a low birth rate and ageing population. Until July, however, Moldova’s published figures were wrong since they were calculated by using a far larger number of the resident population than is actually the case.
For example, Moldovan women were believed to be having as few as 1.28 children, which would make Moldova’s fertility rate one of the lowest in the world.
Now that number has been recalculated to be 1.82, which is less than the 2.1 needed to replace a population but higher than Romania’s 1.71 and the EU’s average of 1.59.
Still, since 1999, more Moldovans have died than been born every year, which means that, even without emigration, the country’s population would be shrinking.
In 2018, there were 34,738 live births in government-controlled territory and 37,303 deaths.
The recalculation of Moldova’s population figures also revealed that life expectancy was lower than had been thought. Today it is 70.6 but there is a wide gap between men and women. Life expectancy for men is 66.2 and for women it is 75.
These are figures similar to Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and, for men especially, a result of poor diet, alcohol and smoking.
The elderly, a large proportion of whom rely on remittances, are also Moldova’s most vulnerable and prone to poverty, said Eduard Mihalas of the UN Population Fund.
While the population is ageing, as it is everywhere else in Europe, the situation in Moldova is not — and will not be — as dramatic as in many other countries because increasingly whole families are going abroad, meaning a lower proportion of elderly people in the future.
Across Europe, the question of migration is an issue understood to have deep and long-lasting political, economic and social consequences.
On the upside, today’s Moldovans, like no other generation before them, can come and go at will and leave for higher pay and better education and facilities elsewhere, Ben Moshe said.
“They are enjoying the global economy,” he added.
For Pistrinciuc, the downside is that unless there is drastic change in Moldova, including a complete “rebuilding of governance” (meaning a break with the corrupt and oligarchic practices of the past), then the country is doomed to become “a holiday home” for those who have left and “an old age home” for those who remain.
‘Statistical Equivalent of Drug Addiction’
Valentina Istrati, head of the Census Department of Moldova’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) is a happy woman at last. She no longer has to lie.
In July 2019, after years of disseminating fantasy figures, the NBS finally came up with a realistic number of how many people live in (most of) Moldova. On I January 2019, it was 2.68 million.
Google “population of Moldova” or look on Eurostat, the EU’s statistical database, and you will begin to understand the problem. There the answer is 3.55 million.
Try the UN, and you get 4.04 million, but that figure includes Transnistria, the breakaway eastern sliver of country not under government control.
The other figures do not include Transnistria and the NBS has not had figures for it since 1998.
It was “indeed difficult,” Istrati said when asked about how and why the NBS was disseminating figures to the government, Eurostat, the UN and others that were false — and which everyone who knew anything about Moldova’s population also knew were wrong.
There was worse. As their basic population figure was wrong, then much of the rest of Moldova’s official data, including its gross domestic product per capita and fertility rate, were — and in many cases, still are — wrong. Work is now planned to update them all.
The reason why Moldova’s figures had got so out of kilter with reality was that the NBS had no idea how many people were leaving the country. Thus it used figures based on the 1989 and 2004 censuses and made estimates of the population with no idea of the real figures.
Using old methodologies, it then added to its total population a figure for people reported by the censuses to actually live abroad.
This meant that the figures used before last July, while wrong, were not false in a dishonest sense, as the NBS were making projections, as they should have done, but just lacked the ability to calculate a crucial piece of information.
Thus, lacking funds and expertise, they used these numbers because they had no others and because they could not simply admit that they did not know how many people lived in the country.
According to Eliahu Ben Moshe, an Israeli expert contracted by the UN to help the NBS sort out the problem, this resulted in the statistical equivalent of “drug addiction”.
During the 2014 census, time and money ran out before 41 per cent of the population of the capital, Chisinau, were counted. A survey afterwards eventually managed to rectify this and so the population was then reckoned to be 2.86m without Transnistria.
Still, there was no estimate of how many were emigrating and hence what the population figures should be since then and between censuses.
Last July, the new figure, updated for 2019, was finally made public. It was based on data collected by the border police with algorithms working to identify the huge numbers of Moldovans who travel with Romanian, Russian or other passports.
It is not foolproof, Istrati said, because it can only identify people if they have travelled at least once on a Moldovan document.
Likewise, the Transnistrians control much of Moldova’s border with Ukraine so there is no data at all from there about numbers entering and leaving, but the NBS believe them not to be significant enough to change their population estimate.
This means that for the first time in years, Moldova has what is regarded by international standards as a reliable population estimate, at least for that part of the country under government control.
Tim Judah is a correspondent for the Economist. He has been working on the subject of demography as a fellow of the Europe’s Futures programme of the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and ERSTE Foundation.
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