What happens when a country disappears? In the last three decades, Latvia has experienced a drastic decrease in its population. First came the collapse of the USSR and a mass emigration of Russians in the 1990s. Then, EU membership in 2004 led to another drop in population through migration. After that, the recession in 2009 and a resultant exodus of people. All this, combined with a low birth rate and high mortality rates, means that Latvia’s population has declined precipitously. UN statistics show that between 2000 and 2018 Latvia’s population decreased 18.2%, the largest decrease in the world. Within 50 years, according to one Latvian journalist, “Latvia may cease to be a nation”. While the economic effects of population decline are well-reported, the social impact is often overlooked. Looking at these social effects can provide an insight into the consequences of widespread demographic changes.
The impact of population decrease on Latvian society cannot be underestimated. Many citizens, especially young people, feel increasing pressure to go overseas in pursuit of higher wages and a better quality of life. Those that stay describe feeling resentment towards those that leave, and many Latvians are torn between wanting to secure a better future for themselves by moving elsewhere and wanting to stay and help their country. In some cases, families are split, with some family members leaving Latvia to earn money, while the rest stay behind. Research by the European Commission shows that mothers are more likely to stay at home as fathers go overseas to work. The effect of this is that it furthers gender imbalances, as women are less likely to work and more reliant on the husband. A long-term absent father also leads to unstable families, and a common problem is husbands overseas deciding to end the marriage, leaving behind the mother in Latvia with children and a lack of qualifications and work experience. As more and more people leave, the people remaining in Latvia feel increasingly left behind. Dubravka Šuica, the EU commissioner for demography, said when she was appointed that people who are left behind have started blaming the government and political system for the discontent. The consequence is that trust in the government is undermined, only increasing the desire for many to leave the country.
The population decline has also served to preserve regional inequalities within Latvia. As more people leave the poorer rural areas, these smaller communities have been gutted, and lack the quality of life or employment opportunities to entice people to stay. This means that even among those that do not go abroad, many still move into cities, particularly the capital Riga. A report by the OECD shows that Latvia has the 3rd highest regional economic disparities among the OECD countries, and youth unemployment in rural Latgale is 24.1% compared to Riga’s 11.2%. This encouraged more and more people to move into Riga, further depopulating rural areas. Riga now accounts for 48% of the country’s population and 66% of the country's GDP, with more people employed in Riga than the rest of the country combined. As Riga becomes increasingly prominent in Latvian life, feelings of discontent and abandonment escalates in rural communities.
Those that leave, the Latvian diaspora, also tend to be more critical and distrustful of the government, with many having left during various times of political instability. Compounding the problem is a disconnect between Latvia and the Latvian diaspora. The Latvian government reportedly struggles to communicate new developments within the country to the diaspora, and provides limited incentives for Latvians to return to the country. As the diaspora is now multi-generational, there is also an erosion of Latvian culture. The language is increasingly threatened as some people of Latvian descent overseas are not exposed to the language. The more disconnected the diaspora is from Latvia, the lower the likelihood of people abroad ever coming back to work in Latvia, and the more endangered Latvian culture becomes.
To help solve some of these problems, the government has organized some assistance with jobs and schooling to entice Latvians abroad to return. They have also begun to offer special language classes in other countries to preserve the language. However, the measures the government has taken are far from adequate to solve the problem, as they focus on the diaspora. The Migration Policy Institute accuses Latvia of “ignoring” the crisis as it is “lacking an immigration plan”. There is a large difference between Estonia’s relatively successful handling of the problem and Latvia’s. Recognizing that immigration is the best way to tackle population decline, Estonia has streamlined its immigration process by incentivizing high-skill workers to join its work force, and rebranding itself as a global leader in digitalization and entrepreneurship. This means Estonia is the only Baltic country avoiding a population decline. In contrast, the Latvian government is in danger of being unable to deal with the crisis. During the Soviet era, there was large-scale immigration into Latvia in an effort by the USSR government to dilute the number of ethnic Latvians in Latvia. The trauma of this has resulted in public opposition to immigration in Latvia, as many are insecure and feel threatened by the idea of immigration. This has left Latvia still without a comprehensive immigration plan and therefore any process to solve the population problem.
Latvia is thus caught in a difficult position. It is facing a massive demographic problem that can be solved by either increasing the number of people in Latvia or reducing the number that leave. The former would involve widespread change of social and cultural norms, where Latvians are encouraged to have more children and to be more accepting of immigrants. The latter involves restricting the emigration of Latvians, which means leaving the EU and the consequent economic shock and security concerns. Therefore, if population decline continues in Latvia, which at this point seems likely, discontent in government, societal instability, and vast regional inequalities are poised to continue as well. As demographic trends in an increasing number of countries in the developed world suggest that population decline will become a commonplace problem in the future, the example of Latvia shows that it can have profound impacts on society.
Birka, Ieva. “Can Return Migration Revitalize the Baltics? Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania Engage Their Diasporas, with Mixed Results.” migrationpolicy.org, May 7, 2019. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/can-return-migration-revitalize-baltics-estonia-latvia-and-lithuania-engage-their-diasporas.
Krišjāne, Zaiga, and Tana Lāce. “Social Impact of Emigration and Rural-Urban Migration in Central and Eastern Europe.” European Commission, April 2012. http://ec.europa.eu/social/BlobServlet?docId=8852&langId=enVaw33O9Y36qojj6gXNmRqYFS4.
Rankin, Jennifer. “Dubravka Šuica: The Woman Tasked with Solving EU’s Demographic Crisis.” The Guardian. March 2, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/02/dubravka-suica-woman-tasked-solving-eu-demographic-crisis.
Rosa-Hernandez, Gabriela. “Demographic Decline: A Tangible Threat to the Baltic States.” American Security Project, November 2, 2018. https://www.americansecurityproject.org/demographic-decline-a-tangible-threat-to-the-baltic-states/.
Sander, Gordon. “How Latvia’s Shrinking Population Became a Security Threat.” Christian Science Monitor. July 10, 2015. https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2015/0710/How-Latvia-s-shrinking-population-became-a-security-threat.