Jon Henley, The Guardian, November 16, 2022
When Margarita Skangale was a teenager in the late 1970s, there were 1,200 pupils in Viļāni high school. When her son was young, the queue outside the children’s clothes shop – assuming, this being the Soviet era, it had any stock – stretched down the street.
Today, there are 400 pupils in the school and of her now 35-year-old son’s class of 26, just four still live in this small town in Latvia’s eastern Latgale region, three hours’ drive from the capital, Riga, and a little over an hour from the Russian border.
In Viļāni’s three-room basement museum, Skangale, 57, pulled out a sheaf of handwritten records: in 1995, the town had 4,311 inhabitants. On 1 January this year, it had 2,882. “A lot’s changed round here,” she said. “It feels very different.”
By 2050, according to the UN, populations will be in decline in more than half Europe’s 52 countries, including Italy, Spain, Poland and Germany. In five – Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia and Ukraine – they are projected to fall by more than 20%.
Over the next three decades, Latvia, having already shed nearly 30% of its population since 1990, is set to lose 23.5% more. “It’s an existential problem,” said Imants Parādnieks, the government’s demographics adviser. “Every nation has to renew. We will not stay Latvia without enough Latvians.”
One factor behind this dramatic decline is global. Across the industrialised world, fertility rates are plunging: two-thirds of the world’s population now live in countries with a birthrate below the 2.1 births per woman necessary for natural replacement.
But crucially, like many of the former Soviet states, especially those that joined the EU with its right to work and live across the bloc, Latvia – present population just under 2m – has also suffered successive waves of emigration, as young people leave for more money abroad.
The net effect is a demographic double-punch. “Right after independence in 1991, people left and the fertility rate also fell sharply; everyone was so uncertain about the future,” said Zane Vārpiņa of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga.
“So the cohort born in the early 1990s was already small. But then many of them left in their turn, after we joined the EU in 2004, or in the 2008-2011 financial crisis, when there was a big exodus. So now, even if the birthrate has risen, the number of babies being born is very low.”
Last year, according to the central statistics office, twice as many Latvians died as were born. The birthrate may have been 1.57, slightly above the European average, but that translated to 17,420 babies – against 40,000 or more a year in the late 1980s.
Nowhere is Latvia’s demographic crisis felt more keenly than in Latgale, whose population shrank – again – by more than 2% last year, more than anywhere else in the country.
For a town that has lost a third of its population in three decades, Viļāni nonetheless manages to look surprisingly spruce. Its white-painted, twin-towered, 18th-century church is resplendent; the streets are spotless.
But in villages around, abandoned houses dot the fields. Up the road in Rēzekne, the regional centre, vast, Soviet-era factories and office blocks stand crumbling.
The local economy, once based on sprawling collective farms and industrial megaplants, all but imploded with the demise of the USSR. Now largely small-scale and agricultural, it has little to offer its dwindling population of young people.
“It feels like emigration may have stabilised recently, but things are hardly booming,” said Ivars Ikaunieks, head of the Viļāni district councils association.
Covid helped a little, with some locals moving back to work from home, loving the lower cost of living and no waiting list for the nursery. But for all the regional authorities’ good intentions, there isn’t the infrastructure for big business, and there aren’t the jobs for young people.
“They want to work in tech, innovation, but here it’s forestry, turf, gravel,” Ikaunieks said. “So lots follow the money – Germany, Scandinavia, factories, ship repair, construction.”
Short-term Nordic contracts, often with basic accommodation, can pay three to five times as much as in Latvia. Some, Ikaunieks said, some come back with their savings and set up small businesses: one recently opened an artisan distillery, another makes local hemp products for the tourist market. But not many do so.
Of course, Latvia, for centuries a battleground fought over by Europe’s east and west, has been here before. In 1910, noted Juris Krūmiņš, a population expert at the University of Latvia, the country’s population was more than 2.6 million.
It fell to 1.9 million after the second world war, then swelled again during the Soviet era, to a peak of 2.7 million in 1990 – and now stands, once more, at just under 1.9 million. “These swings are nothing new,” Krūmiņš said.
But that doesn’t make the present one any less alarming. In a modern economy, it means “a smaller workforce, shortages of key and skilled workers, an ageing population, huge pressure on pensions, healthcare, social services”, Vārpiņa said. “We’re not really seeing it yet, but by 2030, it could start to become critical.”
In his office in the headquarters of the National Alliance, a rightwing, nativist party set to continue as part of the country’s ruling coalition after elections last month, Parādnieks said population must be a priority.
His party, he said, would never support large-scale immigration, a sensitive subject in all three Baltic states, given their postwar history. Instead, the government’s plan is to boost the birthrate and encourage more of the 300,000-odd Latvians living abroad to return home.
Latvian child benefit is now progressive, Parādnieks said, so a family with one child gets €25 (£22) a month, a family with two €100, three €225, and four €400. Those with three or more children are eligible for grants of up to €12,000 to help buy a home, and a large-family card gives big discounts in shops, on public transport and at museums.
As a result, Parādnieks said, the proportion of children in three-child families is rising. There are also plans to improve choice and boost state subsidies for childcare, and to reform pensions so mothers in particular do not suffer financially later in life.
Separately, a scheme was launched in 2018 to entice émigrés back to Latvia, headed by regional re-emigration coordinators who advise on business relocation, jobs, housing, childcare, schools and housing, and can offer cash grants.
Just under 7,000 Latvians came back last year: a couple of hundred fewer than left. Not all will stay. In Rēzekne, Andrey Glushnyov said he’d would be off again in the new year, probably to Finland, leaving his wife and children behind.
Glushnyov has worked for years on construction sites in the UK and in Norway. “I did work here for a while, in a factory,” he said, “but it’s not what I want. I might stay for a good, well-paid job on a big construction site. But there aren’t any.”
Some, though, are determined to make a go of it. Maija Hartmane left aged 10 with her parents, who emigrated to the UK in 2006 and found work near Peterborough.
“It was the usual,” she said in a cafe in Rēzekne. “Factories, fields, warehouses. They never meant to stay, but I ended up doing all my secondary school there, then uni. I’d always assumed I wouldn’t come back, but then I had a baby, and it just felt like time.”
That was in 2018. Hartmane found a job with the council, then a bank. “I’m home,” she said. “My roots, my family are important to me. My best friend from Latvia is still in London. She earns a lot, but has to spend a lot, just to live. I think I’m just as well off here. It’s priorities.”
Vladlena Savelyeva, 36, who teaches English in Riga after working abroad for 12 years on cruise ships and in Greece, Cyprus and Monaco, agreed. “It took time to realise my country has advantages,” she said. “I left to earn money and have a better life. But Latvia has lots going for it.”
Some Latvians, of course, would never leave. Maruta Ladusāne, 43, a chemistry teacher at Viļāni high school, has so few classes now that she also teaches in Rēzekne. Half her college friends left, but she stayed – and she hopes her children will.
“I can’t begin to imagine how I’d feel if they went,” she said. “But everyone knows when the next big crisis hits, there’ll be another massive wave of departures.”
Individual stories may sound encouraging. But longer-term, and larger-scale, experts say the government’s focus on fertility and re-emigration is unlikely to help much. “Population is very complicated, with so many factors,” said Vārpiņa. “But there’s no real way to fully turn natural shrinkage around. Only immigration.”
That’s a choice that has, to a greater or lesser extent, already been made by some of Latvia’s neighbouring countries: Estonia, Poland, Germany. For Latvia, actively welcoming new immigrants looks some way off.
Memories of Soviet occupation and forced integration have left deep scars. “I am a nationalist,” Parādnieks said. “My goal is to make life in Latvia better for Latvians. If other countries want to make life better for everyone, let them.”
For Vārpiņa, that’s shortsighted. “We live in a world of fluid and circular migration,” she said. Latvia should be encouraging highly-qualified, hardworking immigrants – perhaps some of the 30,000 Ukrainians who arrived this year – to stay, even for a short while, she said.
“This country has traditionally been hostile to immigration. But the war has shown that can change. Latvians have offered up their homes, collected people from the border … It’s not hopeless.”