(Lawrence, CC BY-NC-ND)
At the end of January 2020, the Ukrainian authorities published the results of an electronic population census carried out in 2019. The last traditional census, conducted in accordance with international standards, took place in 2001. Back then Ukraine’s population reached 48.5 million people. Those figures were then repeatedly adjusted in order to account for the numbers of deaths and births, as well as the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the migration. As a result, the Ukrainian authorities were making key economic decisions on the basis of population estimates which — as it now turns out — had very little to do with reality.
Ukraine’s population will keep decreasing
As part of the implemented cost-cutting measures, the Ukrainian government decided that, instead of a traditional census, it would carry out a substitute — an electronic census. Just a few days before the announcement of the new results, the State Statistics Service of Ukraine (Ukrstat) reported that the country’s population was 41.9 million people. Meanwhile, it turned out that the Ukrainian population is actually far lower, reaching only 37.282 million.
The number of women in Ukraine is 20.01 million, while the number of men is much lower and reaches only 17.28 million. Ukraine’s overall population includes 5.756 million children under the age of 15 (15.4 per cent of the population), 3.584 million people aged 15-24 (9.6 per cent), 16.458 million people in the working age group of 25-54 years (44.1 per cent), 5.243 million people in the age group of 55-64 years (14.1 per cent), as well as 6.248 million people over 60 (16.8 per cent). In total there are 11.501 million old age pensioners in Ukraine, which accounts for as much as 30.9 per cent of the country’s overall population. The recent electronic population census did not cover the group of approximately 2.5 million Ukrainians who live in the territory of the Russian-annexed Crimea and residents of the parts of the Donbass region still controlled by the pro-Russian separatists.
Apart from the age structure, another element of vital importance for economic analyses is the territorial distribution of the country’s population. As many as one-tenth of all Ukrainians live in country’s capital, Kiev. However, if we also include all the “satellite towns” and the Kiev Oblast surrounding the capital, with a combined population of 2.289 million people, it turns out that Ukraine’s administrative centre has almost 6 million residents, which accounts for 16 per cent of all Ukrainians.
One factor that has strongly contributed to the reduction in the size of the Ukrainian population is emigration. In December 2019, the Ukrainian government published data indicating that nearly 4 million people have left the country since 2010. Contrary to previous expectations, the introduction of a visa-free regime for the citizens of Ukraine by the European Union did not have a decisive effect on emigration. Instead, the migratory movements of the Ukrainian workers were mainly driven by internal economic factors — the authorities reported.
Unfortunately, there are no prospects for the reversal of these negative trends. According to research conducted at the end of 2019 by the Kiev-based public opinion research centre Research & Branding Group, only 6 per cent of Ukrainians plan to have at least one child in the near future. In 2012, the percentage of families planning to have a baby soon reached only 10 per cent. Today, the average Ukrainian family has 1.4 children. However, in order to stop the population decline — let alone ensuring population growth — each Ukrainian family would need to have an average of about 2.2 children.
The consequences of the new population data for public policy
“For decades, the functioning of the Ukrainian state was based on inertia. Annual budgets were adopted, various tax relief measures were calculated, strategies and programs were prepared and implemented, entire branches of industry were reformed. But the exact size of the country’s population wasn’t clear. This situation was further exacerbated by the war and the occupation of Ukrainian territories,” such a description of the situation prior to the census was presented by the Ukrainian Radio.
The results of the census showed that the data which were taken as the starting point for various assessments and analyses, both by the government and by the international financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), were far removed from reality. The difference between the previously assumed size of the population and the actual number of Ukraine’s residents determined during the electronic census exceeds 10 per cent. On the plus side, this means that certain macroeconomic indicators will improve, including the values of GDP and investment per capita, which were previously calculated on the basis of higher population figures.
On the other hand, issues of transport infrastructure will now require a thorough rethinking. The strong concentration of the population in Kiev and several other metropolitan areas means that Ukraine will soon be able to “give up” on maintaining its extensive road network, because it may become a relatively desolated country that should be able to cope with a relatively limited network of communication routes linking the major population centers and the main exit points for commodity exports, such as the seaports and land border crossings. The “latifundization” (concentration of land ownership) of the Ukrainian countryside — as planned by the government — and the predicted depopulation of rural areas that it would entail, will only accelerate this process.
The results of the electronic census also show the extremely difficult condition of Ukraine’s public finances. After accounting for the people employed in the public sector, it turns out that just a quarter of all Ukrainians have to support the remaining 75 per cent of the population, and the taxes collected from these workers have to finance the health care and the education sectors, the army, the wages of the public sector employees, and above all, the retirement pensions of almost one third of their fellow citizens. This would be a difficult task even in a normally functioning economy.
The United Nations (UN) recommends that member states carry out a population census at least once every ten years, indicating that the data obtained in this way are essential for shaping the economic policies, development planning, social welfare and assistance programs, and for the analysis of business risks. The UN also provides detailed guidelines regarding the methodology that countries should follow during the census. In Ukraine, the size of the population was estimated based on the comparisons and juxtapositions of data obtained, among others, from mobile network operators, as well as data from the available studies concerning households and public registers.
According to Oleksandr Gladun from the Institute for Demography and Social Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, data obtained in this way are less accurate than those obtained in a traditional census carried out in accordance with the methodology recommended by the UN. “The objective of a population census is not only to find out how many people live in the country, but also to learn about the exact population structure throughout the whole territory, including the smallest towns and villages. The coverage of the territory of Ukraine with mobile networks is still not complete, and the percentage of mobile phone users in rural areas is lower than in the cities,” stated the scientist.
The government’s digital census is assessed in a similar manner by its co-organizer Volodymyr Sarioglo. “In the traditional census survey we collect information about the level of education, employment, family status, and the number of children in combination with the level of education. And all of this is carried out separately for each location. Meanwhile, what has been published by the government is not really an electronic population census, but simple estimates of the size of the population, its age and sex structure, as well as territorial distribution,” he commented.
The reliance of the recent census on state registers, which are generally considered to be unreliable, has also been questioned. “The margin of error is less than 3 per cent, and higher accuracy is not necessary to make effective management decisions both in the government sector and in business,” argued Dmytro Dubilet, a cabinet minister without portfolio, responsible for the conduct of the population census.
In the next two years, the government plans to create a unified register of Ukrainian citizens. This database would be developed through the merging of all the distributed state registers. As a result, the government would have up-to-date information on the number of citizens and could use these data when planning its activities.