September 17, 2021

Ukraine at 30: What does the mirror show?


Independent Ukraine in its most modern and sustained incarnation has just turned 30. But now that the celebrations are over, it’s important to pause and take stock.

What do we actually know about the real state of things beneath the opaque, yet distracting, surface of crude politics and still pervasive corruption?  These are unpleasant factors, yet they overshadow the enduring resolute resistance to Russia’s aggression, ongoing complex systemic transformation and the evolving self-identification and aspirations of the state and its people.

But they also overshadow the socio-economic dynamics and changes that have been occurring and which are having an important impact in Ukraine, as well as the changing perceptions of Ukraine from outside.

To understand contemporary Ukraine, it is therefore necessary to see what an honest composite snapshot of current realities reveals.

Who indeed are the Ukrainians at this stage of their historic development as a people and state? For that matter, how many of them currently live in Ukraine as compared to three decades ago? Are they more united, “patriotic” and better off? What language do they prefer to speak, and what is their sense of what it means to be a Ukrainian citizen these days?

Fortunately, we have some recent, though tentative, indicators that can help answer some of these questions, or at least help form a general impression of Ukraine today.

The results are rather mixed and certainly invite sober reflection. While there are reasons for optimism, there are also issues which give rise to concern.

First, on the issue of demography, there is no precise current measure of Ukraine’s population. The last census was conducted 20 years ago. The next count was to have taken place in 2020, but it was postponed until 2023.  That said, it’s clear that the country’s population has shrunk quite dramatically over the last three decades.

The last census conducted in the Soviet era was in 1989. It revealed that the population of the Soviet Ukrainian republic was close to 52 million. Of that number, 72.7 percent of Ukraine’s population was made up of ethnic Ukrainians, 22.1 percent was Russian and 0.9 percent was Belarusian, which formed Ukraine’s third largest ethnic group.

The first and so far only census carried out in independent Ukraine occurred in 2001. That count put Ukraine’s population at just over 48 million people. According to that census, Ukrainians made up 77.8 percent of the country’s population, Russians accounted for 17.3 percent of the population, and Belarusians made up the third largest group with 0.6 percent of the population.

Today, the current population of Ukraine, according to the website Worldometer, is almost 43.5 million people. The average Ukrainian life expectancy is 72.5 years old, and the median age is 41.2.

That said, just how reliable are these figures?

Earlier this month, Professor Ella Libanova, director of the Ptoukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, gave the internet news site Ukrainska Pravda much lower numbers.  She estimates that in reality, not counting people in the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia, today’s population of Ukraine is somewhere between 37-38 million people.

The decline in the size of the population has been caused by two main factors – the hemorrhaging of millions of would-be economic migrants in search of better pay and opportunities outside of Ukraine, and the low birth rate as a result of difficult economic conditions.

Today, Ukraine is being depicted, rightly or wrongly, as the poorest country in Europe.  Certainly, after 30 years of independence, the wealth and potential of the country has not resulted in a more equitable and socially just society. It has instead produced an exploitative elite that continues to thrive on the situation, and those elites have no incentive to change the status quo.

Ms. Libanova nevertheless believes the situation is not as bleak as it seems.  Ukrainians have become used to hiding their real earnings and assets, actual or potential, and getting by with the help of a shadow economy.

But she agrees that in today’s very difficult economic conditions, the majority of Ukrainians fear having a second child, or even one, because doing so means they risk economic hardship and financial overstretch. Thus, demographically, this situation poses a serious threat for Ukraine.

Apart from producing a more accurate picture of the composition of Ukraine’s population, what else does Ukraine’s leading demographer believe a future census will reveal?

The distribution and concentration of the population might come as surprise to people, Ms. Libanova said.

“I think there will be many more people concentrated in the metropolises, and there will be fewer people in western Ukraine than we imagine because of labor migration.”

And what about the nature of Ukraine’s current population, their political and linguistic affinities?

In the first part of August, the Social Monitoring Center in Kyiv carried out a detailed monitoring survey entitled “Dynamics of socio-political attitudes and assessments of the population of Ukraine.” The results, even if not definitive, are nevertheless illuminating.

Here are some of the highlights.

Today, 80 percent of those polled would support the declaration of Ukraine’s independence (compared to 92 percent in the referendum held in December 1991), while 15 percent would be against and 5 percent said they are uncertain.

Seventy-five percent of the people polled identify as Ukrainian citizens, 11 percent do not and, overall, some 26 percent are nostalgic about the former Soviet Union – 32 percent even said they regret the dissolution of the USSR.

Sixty-four percent of the people polled said they are for joining the European Union and 54 percent want Ukraine to become a member of NATO.

Thirty-two percent of the people polled said they would like to work abroad, while 65 percent said they do not.

On the language issue, 31.9 percent of the people polled said they speak only Ukrainian, while 27.1 percent speak both Russian and Ukrainian equally, 15.8 percent said they speak mostly Ukrainian, while 13.6 percent said they speak mostly Russian, 11.3 percent speak exclusively Russian and 0.3 percent said they speak another language.

Some 63.1 percent of respondents said they receive public and political information about events in the country from television, 50.9 percent said they get information from social and multimedia platforms, 35 percent said they get information from news sites, 6.9 percent get information from Telegram, and 5.6 percent answered “other/not interested.”

Roughly 93 percent of the people polled said they prefer Ukrainian television channels, 12.5 percent said they prefer Russian television channels and 3.9 percent said they prefer television channels from other countries.

Two other responses deserve mention. The first concerns belief in God.  60 percent of the people polled said they believe in God, while 7 percent identified as atheists. Second, 57 percent of the people polled said that they are generally satisfied with their lives, while 21 percent said they are not.

The Social Monitoring Center drew the following conclusion from its survey.

“During 30 years of Ukraine’s independence, a generation of people has grown up who, in their views, ideas, values and dreams, are markedly different … [from those who came before them].  Ideological and regional differences have become less significant.”

But Ms. Libanova nevertheless raised a note of caution. When asked what worries her the most in Ukraine today, she offered a very direct answer.

“Nihilism. For almost 30 years, the monitoring of the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences [of Ukraine] has shown total distrust of all government institutions. Ukrainians trust only their immediate surroundings, relatives. Sometimes [they trust] neighbors and colleagues, but to a much lesser extent. That’s what worries me.”

And secondly, she said she was worried that many Ukrainians lack tolerance of other cultures and peoples.

“We do not want, or cannot accept, a different culture, different views and ways of life. … This means we are not so ready to change,” Ms. Libanova said.

So perhaps an inherent conservatism, if not complacency, is an overlooked trait of Ukrainian society.  While there have been sporadic outbursts of progress, this factor affects Ukraine’s ability to build an inclusive political nation and prosperous state.

Clearly, the experience of the last three decades and the lessons learned deserve more thorough evaluation.