September 11, 2020

As Ukraine’s population shrinks, Kyiv stalls dual citizenship bill


CHICAGO – A dual citizenship bill designed as part of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s plan to encourage foreigners of Ukrainian heritage and those living abroad to return home has stalled in the Verkhovna Rada.

It was initially drafted by the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC) jointly with the Kyiv-based National Institute of Strategic Studies and submitted to the Presidential Office last November. Mr. Zelenskyy registered the bill in the Verkhovna Rada in January and it was tabled for consideration six times before being removed from the legislature’s agenda on May 19, the Parliament’s website shows.

The version the president submitted is significantly different from the one the UWC sent for consideration. Namely, it includes Russian citizens whereas UWC President Paul Grod insists the bill’s language should exclude “countries occupying or who are at war with Ukraine.”

There’s also the issue of “Russia and Hungary handing out passports to Ukrainians – all of a sudden these people pose a security threat,” Mr. Grod told The Ukrainian Weekly. He added that the original bill included people living in NATO and European Union (EU) countries as qualifying, and said he would like to see Australia included as well.

In spirit, he said, the bill was designed to treat all Ukrainians within the framework of the bill “equally,” which would allow naturalized Ukrainians to maintain their previous citizenship and allow them to vote, hold public office and work as civil servants.

“I endorse a concept… where you have one class of citizens,” Mr. Grod, a Ukrainian Canadian, said.

As recently as September 2, Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that, if the law is adopted in its current form, civil servants will not be allowed to hold dual citizenship.

Ukraine currently does not allow dual citizenship.

“This issue [dual citizenship] raises discussions. I personally believe that we should find a balanced solution. Let’s face it: millions of Ukrainians for different reasons went abroad but want to remain citizens of Ukraine and helped Ukraine in the hardest of times,” Mr. Kuleba told the 1+1 Ukrainian channel.

Mr. Zelenskyy has acknowledged Ukraine’s demographic crisis and in his inauguration speech in May 2019 called on Ukrainians abroad to help build a stronger state.

“Today, I appeal to all Ukrainians in the world. There are 65 million of us,” he said. “Ukrainians in Europe and Asia, in North and South America, Australia and Africa – I appeal to all Ukrainians on the planet!”

The Presidential Office has not responded to two e-mailed inquiries regarding the subject matter of this article, including on legislation and policies that would encourage all groups of Ukrainians to emigrate to start businesses, invest, create jobs, share their knowledge in the public sector or even retire in their ancestral homeland.

Ukraine had close to 52 million inhabitants upon regaining independence in 1991. A decade later, the population stood at 48 million, the last time an official census was held. The World Bank estimates the country’s current population is 44.6 million, while the European Commission places the number at 42 million.

A United Nations report from last year says that, if current trends continue, Ukraine could lose a fifth of its population by 2050.

A number of factors contribute to Ukraine’s shrinking population.

The death rate has often surpassed the birth rate due to low life expectancy amid a struggling health-care system, which hasn’t been completely reformed to focus on patients. In addition, during economic downturns, spouses also often refrain from creating larger families.

Ukrainians living in Russia-occupied areas, equaling about 7 percent of the country’s area, are no longer counted as part of the labor force.

Ella Libanova, the director of the Kyiv-based Ptoukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine told The Atlantic magazine in March that the population could be as low as 35 million.

Since 1991 and to this day, Ukrainians continue to emigrate abroad for “economic reasons,” said Orest Zakydalsky, senior policy advisor at the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC).

“They feel no economic opportunity to realize their potential in Ukraine… the main reason is that the economy remains monopolized by oligarchs,” he added.

Ukraine is Europe’s second poorest country, based on nominal and per-capita gross domestic product figures.

Mr. Zakydalsky added that the economy should be “de-monopolized” and “sustained economic growth should be pursued by ensuring protection of property rights and through a proper judicial system.”

Separately, Andy Hunder, president of the American Chamber of Commerce of Ukraine, tweeted on September 4: “The court system is absolutely rotten to the bone. And it’s the reason why investors have shied away. We need someone to take responsibility.”

Ever since the EU allowed Ukrainians to travel visa-free to most of its countries in June 2017, Ukraine has seen an influx of migrants abroad, mainly to Poland.

One in seven wage-earning Ukrainians is a labor migrant in the EU, according to the European Commission. Some 3.2 million Ukrainians were recorded as working abroad last year, a separate report by Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy recently stated.

As a reservoir of migrant labor, Ukrainians have on average sent about $1 billion monthly back home to Ukraine, but lately that figure has dipped due to restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The central bank in June reported that remittances of $856 million from labor migrants was sent home. After food exports, labor remittances are the second largest source of income for Ukraine.

Among those who had left the country 10 to 15 years ago, the conditions haven’t changed, which is a disincentive to returning, said Ihor Michalchyshyn, CEO and executive director of UCC.

“Everybody eventually hits a wall when it comes to the rule of law,” he said, adding that the judiciary and other factors that contribute to ensuring justice “are not up to standards we would expect.”

In spite of the current draft law’s perceived flaws, Andriy Futey, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, said that more pressing issues could’ve placed the bill on the backburner.

A supporter of Ukrainians of all stripes returning to Ukraine, he told The Ukrainian Weekly that other priorities “have laid the issue on the desk.”

They include the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the country, with nearly 3,000 deaths and more than 140,000 cases as of September 9.

An ongoing “war with Russia [in its seventh year] and political upheavals have always prioritized themselves,” Mr. Futey added, while saying that “we should continue and stop this trend of the huge departure of people,” which is something the “government and the Verkhovna Rada must address as soon as possible.”

Indeed, one of President Zelenskyy’s biggest media backers during his campaign, billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, told the Ukrainian media outlet in August 2019 that reversing the mass emigration from the country would be Mr. Zelenskyy’s “key performance indicator.”

Philadelphia-based immigration lawyer Iryna Mazur, who provided input on the dual citizenship bill for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, said it’s “not ideal and needs to be polished more.”

She said it’s premature to pass a dual citizenship law because Ukraine should “work on its foundation and not the roof” at the moment, mentioning other preconditions that should be met for such a law to be passed.

“You could bring people back through other laws that serve as instruments of engaging the diaspora to serve their country,” said Ms. Mazur, who also sits on the board of directors of Razom, a non-profit, apolitical group that unites recent Ukrainian immigrants and others focused on the goal of “unlock[ing] the potential of Ukraine.”

She agreed with other interlocutors that the government should first improve work and living conditions inside the country before embarking on other initiatives to reverse the negative demographic trends.

Attitudes need to change among those in power who refuse help from abroad because they “have that arrogance about ‘I know everything and you don’t need to teach us,’ ” she added.

Ms. Mazur concluded, “if we care about Ukraine and want to make it better, then we have to find mutual agreement.”

Still, Mr. Grod of the UWC believes the diaspora has a lot to offer and its value for lobbying and assisting Ukraine was highlighted during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and the ensuing war with Russia.

Just like Jews around the world whom Israel considers as equals, he said, “Ukraine looks at us as people who have values of respect, dignity, rule of law, and realize that democracy is important for Ukraine’s future.”

Since 2014, among others who have advised the previous administration of Petro Poroshenko were Chicago native Natalie Jaresko, who served as finance minister, and Detroit-area native Ulana Suprun, who was acting minister of health.

The current administration of President Zelenskyy has Ukrainian American lawyer Andrew Mac in Washington as a non-staff presidential adviser. He was appointed on November 5, 2019, with a mandate to build relations with the Ukrainian diaspora.

His primary areas of activity include cooperation with the North American Ukrainian community and established diaspora groups like the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, the Ukrainian World Congress and Razom, as well as with Ukraine’s Embassy in Washington. One of his projects was to organize an investment forum in Ukraine involving Ukrainian diaspora members, but COVID-19 has postponed that indefinitely.

Mr. Mac said he thinks Ukrainians abroad of all stripes could contribute to building Ukraine.

Whereas most Ukrainians who’ve left Ukraine still renew their passports, foreigners of Ukrainian extraction can still apply for residency permits based on their lineage, which affords them all rights, except for political ones.

Mr. Mac also pointed out that the underlying conditions keeping people back are lack of rule of law, legislative clarity and property rights protection, and perceived corruption in Ukrainian courts.