Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 25

By Volodymyr Zviglyanich

National security questions are traditionally seen as encompassing predominantly military and political problems–potential conflicts between countries and international threats. The reasons for these conflicts may be trade wars, redistribution of spheres of influence, territorial claims by countries and, more recently–as demonstrated by Russia’s war in Chechnya and the war in Bosnia and the Albanian part of Kosovo–the ethnic factor, when the politically dominant ethnic group (Russians, Serbs) uses force to put down the demands for independence of the politically subordinate ethnic group (Chechens, Albanians).

While traditional conflicts have obvious manifestations–military action–“ethnic cleansing,” mass deportations and conflicts provoked by a nation’s demographic crisis are of a secret, hidden nature. Challenges to national and regional security raised by the make-up of the population–constantly deteriorating both quantitatively and qualitatively–and by the physical and psychological health of the population are characterized by a gradual build-up of quantitative changes (even in the population total) which leads to a dramatic qualitative change in the social and political situation, and even in political geography. If, for example, a creeping demographic crisis causes a given country’s population to decrease by 30 or 40 percent over ten or fifteen years, then doubts arise both about its territorial integrity–if there are territorial claims on it or if the state collapses–and about the fate of the nation itself and its component ethnic groups. The maintenance of national, regional and international security depends to a large extent on how quickly the signs of an unstable demographic situation are spotted and whether the Hegelian “quantity to quality” transition is averted.

Thus demography can be viewed as one of the determining factors in the stable and secure development of a state, which should view optimum demographic development as a priority interest.

Figures from Ukraine’s State Committee for Statistics suggest the country is at the beginning of a transition from quantitative demographic changes to a different qualitative state. An analysis of these figures provides a clearer picture of Ukraine’s social and political climate on the eve of its crucial 1999 presidential elections.


Unlike the ongoing financial and economic crisis, which the government and international financial institutions are trying to resolve, the demographic crisis in Ukraine is of an unclear, hidden nature. Its consequences pose a threat to Ukraine’s national security no less serious–and possibly more serious–than the pathetic state of the national economy and finances. The funds needed to finance the budget deficit or to save the crumbling banking system can be borrowed from international financial organizations or private investors. But there is no organization in the world which can save a nation from depopulation or replace the loss of its endogenous population.

The main demographic indicators in Ukraine show a rapid rise in infant and adult mortality over the last seven years and indicate a society under stress, against the backdrop of a dramatic fall in the total population, life expectancy and rate of birth.

The reasons for these trends are a matter for debate. Some authors cite the prolonged unfavorable demographic tendencies which began under the Soviet regime and which have predominantly economic causes. According to Oleh Wolowyna, “The demographic crisis would have hit Ukraine regardless of the declaration of independence, because negative demographic trends were well in place prior to collapse of the Soviet Union. People expected miracles with independence, which was unrealistic since many basic political and economic changes will take twenty to twenty-five years” (The Ukrainian Weekly, August 24, 1997).

Left-wingers in Ukraine, particularly the parliamentary majority, believe that the fall in Ukraine’s population from 52.2 million in 1993 to 50.9 million in 1997, and its continuing drop, is the result of deliberate genocide conducted by the current authorities and dictated by international financial organizations. The authorities’ actions, according to left-wing parties, are aimed at reducing the state budget deficit by speeding up the extinction of Ukraine’s pensioners, who number 12-13 million. From numerous personal conversations with pensioners I can conclude they share this view completely. How can you live on a pension of US$25, they ask rhetorically, when food prices are pretty much the same as in the United States? Indeed, one reason for Ukraine’s depopulation, which is unprecedented for a period of peace without natural disasters, is that the death rate exceeds the birth rate. In 1996, there were approximately 800,000 deaths in Ukraine and 500,000 births.

The “quiet” extinction of huge numbers of the elderly suggests the transition from demographic problems to political ones–quantity to quality. Large numbers of passive old people, who have come to terms with the prospect of miserly pensions, malnutrition and early death, are ideal subjects for social manipulation. This is well understood by the left and communist forces in Russia as well as in Ukraine. The bulk of the electorate of the current left majority in both the Ukrainian and Russian parliaments consists of old people, who, because of their Soviet past and miserable present, are particularly disposed to the ideas of a return to times of cheap food and state paternalism.

Left-wing politicians will continue to manipulate the social passivity and alienation of the elderly population. The free-marketeers and liberals have been unable to find socially attractive slogans capable of converting the millions of elderly voters to their ideas. But the votes of younger voters, who traditionally support market-oriented politicians, will clearly not be enough: according to Oleh Wolowyna, “by 2010 Ukraine’s population could drop to approximately 46 million, a decrease of almost 6 million people in fifteen years.” Ukraine’s birth rate–8.7 percent–is the second lowest in the former Soviet Union and Europe. The mortality rate–14.8 percent–is the second highest in Europe, and the infant mortality rate of 14.7 per 1000 live births is three times higher than the average for developed countries.

In fact, given that babies who die during the first week of life are considered in Ukraine to have died from pregnancy complications (miscarriages) and therefore not included in the infant mortality rates, the infant death rate in Ukraine is probably closer to 22 per 1000 live births. By this indicator, Ukraine cannot rank among developed nations. Indeed, according to several social demographic indicators, Ukraine ranks alongside African countries such as Mozambique, Ethiopia and Congo.

This means the Ukrainian population may react like the population of African countries to a whole range of issues. For example, the causes of infant mortality in African countries and in Ukraine are almost identical–low birth weight, poor prenatal nutrition, complications at birth and premature births. So more and more Ukrainian families are deciding not to have children. In 1997 the total fertility rate (TFR), by which the population reproduces itself, was 1.4 children. The lowest recorded TFR of 1.1 children is in San Marino. The reasons for deciding not to have children include a lack of money and appropriate housing, and uncertain economic prospects.

Paradoxical social and psychological phenomena are appearing in Ukraine. When they reject the idea of having children, adult couples also reject responsibility altogether, and behave like children socially and psychologically–a phenomenon which psychologists call “social infantilism.” It includes impulsiveness and lack of balance; tendencies towards alcoholism and suicide; nonacceptance of and an inappropriate attitude toward private property. All this amounts to an absence of socially aware political behavior, which only enhances the possibilities of political manipulation in the future.

The death rate among adults, particularly men, is climbing. For example, in Kiev Oblast in 1996 male mortality was six times higher than female mortality. Only Russia has a higher mortality rate than Ukraine. The average life expectancy in Ukraine in 1995 was 67.5 years (62 for men and 73 for women)–a fall of three years since 1990 (66 for men and 75 for women). By comparison, life expectancy in the United States is 72 for men and 76 for women.

The fall in the life expectancy of the most productive part of the population brings irreversible qualitative changes in the structure of the work force. It is leading to a drop in economic growth rates, a reduction in the workforce’s innovative potential and a breach in the transfer of work experience and skills from older workers to young ones, which is particularly well developed in the country with the best demographic indicators–Japan.


Ukraine’s negative demographic trends are also undermining its national security by shrinking the demographic base for forming a modern army. Ukraine currently has neither the means nor the political will to switch to a contract-based army as in most developed countries, so it continues the old Soviet practice of compulsory military service for 18-year-olds. However, a comparison of the figures from the last two censuses of 1979 and 1989 shows a clear decrease in the total number of young people of military age. The number of male 15- to 19-year-olds in 1989 was only 85 percent of the 1979 figure. The number of 17-year-old men in Ukraine in 1993 was 13.8 percent less than in 1980, and of 18-year-olds 8.5 percent less (Natalya Lakiza-Sachuk. The demographic factor: The main trends of demographic policy, National Institute for Strategic Studies. Kiev, 1997, pp. 56-64, 179-181).

The reduction in the number of conscripts will finally force Ukraine to move to a contract-based army, which will require increased spending and a reduction in the number of generals, and lead to antagonism between older and younger officers. This will create the potential for conflict in the army and in society.


The abrupt social stratification and differentiation of a society leads to dangerous polarization. In Ukraine today, there is a huge number of very poor people and a small number (no more than 5 percent of the total population). of extremely rich people. The hryvnya’s recent devaluation, which followed the devaluation of the Russian ruble, had the effect of smothering the shoots of the middle class which had begun to appear in Ukraine, as they had in Russia. The absence of a middle class, together with social polarization, creates the potential for social extremism.


Ukraine’s hidden unemployment also increases the potential for social conflict and political extremism. According to World Bank estimates, real unemployment in Ukraine is as much as 30 percent, and in some regions of Western Ukraine and Crimea–50 percent of the employable population (around 23 million). Worker often do not officially leave their factory jobs even if they are working elsewhere, because they are afraid of losing benefits like free health care. They are, thus, working in the ‘gray economy’–meaning they do not pay taxes.

Unemployment has grown fastest among women. While women made up 65 percent of the total number of unemployed who registered with employment services in 1997, they only numbered 45 percent of those found work (On the social and economic situation in Ukraine from January-November 1997. Kiev: Ukrainian State Committee for Statistics, 1997, pp. 68-76). As many as 75 percent of the unemployed have higher or specialized secondary education.

Most of these are involved in petty trading (known as ‘shuttle traders’). A large portion of the highly educated employable population is actually excluded from the productive economy. This undermines the quality of production, makes Ukrainian products less competitive and undermines the country’s attempts to shift foreign markets away from Russia and other CIS countries towards Eastern Europe and the West, as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary successfully did. The rapid emergence of a lumpenproletariat among the Ukrainian population creates fertile soil for authoritarian politicians. This explains the growing calls for “a Ukrainian Pinochet” (Galytski kontrakty, No. 41, 1998).


1. The current demographic crisis in Ukraine is fraught with irreversible qualitative changes in the social and political climate, including growing messianism, paternalist expectations, social infantilism and a reduction in the quality of the workforce. The foundation is being laid for the election of a left-wing president in the 1999 elections.

2. A future left-wing regime in Ukraine will be different from the left-wing governments of Hungary and Poland, which seek entry into NATO and the European Union. Cut off from these structures, Ukraine is caught in the “gray” zone of European alienation, with intesifying anti-Western tendencies.

3. The growing pressure on Ukraine from such politicians as Aleksandr Lukashenka, Yevgeny Primakov, Gennady Seleznev and Gennady Zyuganov to join the Russian-Belarusan union, and also the fact that Yugoslavia may join the union, may fundamentally change the geopolitical situation in Central Europe, leading to the spread of ideas of “pan-Slav” unity based on anti-Westernism.

4. Western countries, bearing in mind the potential social consequences of the demographic, may reorient their Ukraine aid programs towards the development of a modern pension system, healthcare, job training programs and a volunteer army.

Volodymyr Zviglyanich is a senior research fellow of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, a research associate at George Washington University, and a senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation.