19 October 2023

The Vanishing People

Is it possible to stop the rapid decline in the Moldovan population?

© Natalia Gârbu / NewsMaker

In terms of population decline, Moldova is a leader among European countries. The main reasons are high mortality, low birth rates and the catastrophically high levels of permanent emigration. Dr. Alexander Makukhin, a social sciences expert and journalist, analyzes the reasons for Moldova’s depopulation and explores possible solutions to this critical problem.

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In September-October 2023, a pilot population census is underway in Moldova. This serves as a training exercise designed to replicate real-life conditions as closely as possible in preparation for a full-scale population census in 2024. Many find this step rather unusual since people are not entirely clear what a census is. The last census took place in Moldova nearly a decade ago, in May 2014, and the data obtained from it subsequently aroused criticism. The subject of this criticism was the significant undercounting of the population, particularly in the capital, Chişinău. These issues, however, are not of primary concern at the moment.

The law mandates the conducting of a full census in Moldova at least once every 10 years. This means that the time for a new census is fast approaching, with a deadline no later than May 2024. Many have overlooked this fact although there is a strong possibility that the results of the upcoming census could be quite startling for Moldovan society.

Moldova is one of the European leaders in terms of population decline. At its core, this situation can be boiled down to two primary factors: the negative balance between birth rate and mortality. This results in more deaths than births (within this negative balance, there are concerns related to both low birth rates and high death rates) as well as the negative migration balance, indicating that more people leave than arrive or return to the country.

In this way the ‘three black pillars’ of Moldovan demography include a low birth rate, a high death rate and a devastatingly high level of expatriation.

How Did This Happen?

At the present time not a single city in Moldova, including the capital, shows any population growth due to natural factors – not even at the level of minimal statistical significance (usually around 0.1% of the population). In 2021, for instance, the population in Chişinău declined by 3% compared to the previous year and in the ‘northern capital’, the city of Bălți experienced a population decrease of 8% compared to the previous year. In the cases of Chişinău and Bălți, however, a portion of the population is offset by internal population migration from other regions. The rest of the country’s cities, on the other hand, cannot rely on this resource and so they are grappling with a negative balance between birth rates and mortality rates, coupled with population emigration, while the volume of population arrivals remains insignificant.

The sole exception to this pattern is the Ialoveni district or, more precisely, its northwestern section, as well as the city of Ialoveni itself, both of which have already become part of the conventionally established Chişinău agglomeration. In Ialoveni, there is a documented population influx constituted by individuals who deliberately leave Chişinău, thereby creating the flow of a classic pendulum migration between the suburbs and the city.

Since the north of Moldova is economically disadvantaged compared to the south, its population’s decline transpires more rapidly. The average rate of depopulation in the northern regions, with the exception of Bălți, is approximately 12.75%. In the southern regions of the country this level is somewhat lower at around 8%, which is also not very encouraging, especially when considering specific localities such as the Cimișlia area where the depopulation rate reaches 11%.

As a result, the elevated mortality rate after the age of 40 and the significant disparity in life expectancy between men and women are contributing factors to the declining Moldovan population, even without factoring in emigration.

The difference between the birth rate and the death rate determines whether the population is experiencing natural growth or decline. When the total birth rate exceeds the death rate, it constitutes natural population growth. Conversely, if the total birth rate is lower than the death rate, it signifies natural population decline. For more than five years, starting in 2017, Moldova has consistently experienced a situation of natural population decline. Thus, in 2021 slightly over 29,000 people were born alive (such statistics do not initially include stillbirths and neonatal deaths) while in 2022 only 27,000 such live births were recorded, representing a decline of 8% within a single year.

The death toll in 2021 was considerably higher, totaling 45,000 (although it is important to consider the residual impact of the COVID-19 pandemic). In other words, the difference between the number of live births and the number of deaths in 2021 resulted in a net decrease of 16,000 people.

In 2022, the impact of the pandemic was no longer significant, resulting in fewer deaths, with approximately 36,000 people dying. Nevertheless, the overall difference between the number of births and deaths still remained negative with a decrease of more than 9,000 people. This figure continues to grow steadily, even without taking into account the effects of the pandemic.

Moldova is a European country with a notably high mortality rate and quite modest life expectancy. The primary concern lies in the significant disparity between the average life spans of Moldovan men and women, a gap that has shown little change over the past five years. On average, a Moldovan man typically lives 8.5 years less than a Moldovan woman. Furthermore, the mortality rate in men sharply increases after the age of 40, a trend that has remained virtually unchanged.

The infant and child mortality rates in Moldova are steadily decreasing year after year, which is one of the few clearly positive trends in Moldovan demography.

A significant problem is the low life expectancy, which is growing much more slowly than that of other European countries. As of 2022, the average life expectancy in Moldova is 71.4 years while in neighboring Romania it constitutes 76.4 years; in Bulgaria – 75.5 years; in Macedonia – 76.1 years; in Serbia – 76.3 years. If we compare this indicator to that of countries with a more developed social security and healthcare system, then the gap would be even wider. And what is more concerning is that this gap continues to increase. For instance, in France the average life expectancy in 2022 was 82.3 years and in Germany it was 81.7 years.

The average age of the population in Moldova is 40.3 years. However, individuals aged 50 years and older are projected to comprise 50% of Moldova’s de facto population by around 2040, while the EU average is not expected to reach this level of aging until around 2060 or later.

At the end of 2022, the net balance between the birth rate and death rate was minus 9,100 people. This is significantly less than the 2021 results, when the net balance was minus 16,100 people. It should be noted again that in 2021 Moldova, like all other countries, experienced additional losses due to the global COVID-19 pandemic and the negative effects of this pandemic persisted until the end of the year.

The Catastrophic Level of Emigration

According to the 2021 data, Moldova experienced a net emigration of minus 45,400 people. By the end of 2022 this figure decreased to minus 43,000 people per year. From 2014 to 2022 the average annual calculated volume of emigration alone stood at minus 317.100 people. This is noteworthy, especially considering the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which not only resulted in a temporary, albeit sharp, spike in mortality but also temporarily restricted opportunities for emigration. In 2020, nearly 10,000 people died, while only 7.200 left the country – which is an unprecedented occurrence in Moldova’s emigration history.

And that is not all. In addition to considering the sheer volume of emigration, it is crucial to keep in mind that the majority of these hundreds of thousands of emigrants were people between 20 and 34 years old when they left the country, though this context is gradually changing as well. For instance, the 2020 results reveal that most of those who left in that year were teenagers aged 15 to 20 years old. Beyond the evident fact that these individuals play a pivotal role in driving economic processes, there is another aspect often overlooked or not given due consideration. In addition to their labor capacities, resources, skills, intellectual potential and more, the vast majority of these emigrants are likely to become parents in the future.

Despite Moldova’s top ranking among all European countries in terms of average fertility indicators (1.8 children born per woman of reproductive age), one cannot have high expectations about this, precisely because of the significant volume of migration. The main issue lies in the relocation of a substantial number of women who are physically capable of having children in the future.

At present, none of the EU countries or EU membership candidate countries has reached the ‘golden level’ of 2.1 children per woman, which in theory would allow for the maintenance of a stable population. Within the non-Asian part of the former USSR, the fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman has been observed in only one country – Georgia, although this figure is expected to decrease next year. Additionally, like Moldova, Georgia also faces significant challenges due to large-scale emigration of its citizens.

The reality is that the majority of children born abroad, even in families where both parents hold Moldovan citizenship, are likely to return to Moldova mainly as tourists, or to visit their grandparents during holidays, or simply to sightsee the places where their parents were born and raised.

That being said, many of these young emigrants are likely to retain the citizenship of Moldova throughout their lives unless the host country has an extremely strict policy regarding citizenship acquisition. Furthermore, all children born to at least one parent with Moldovan citizenship have a formal right to Moldovan citizenship. However, even if these documents are issued, they will primarily serve as statistical figures and may not carry fundamental importance for the country itself.

The Labor Problem

Nearly half of the employers and business owners in Moldova tend to voice different versions of the same complaint: “people don’t want to work” or “there is no one to do the work anymore.” This is especially true when it comes to manufacturing structures, not just office settings, and therefore concerns the production facilities that are located outside the city limits of Chişinău.

The average salary in such environments for unskilled manual labor types that do not require special qualifications is 8,000–10,000 Moldovan lei (€420–€520). For qualified and more experienced personnel, the salary may be higher, usually ranging from 14,000–18,000 Moldovan lei (€730–€930), although the requirements for these kinds of jobs are noticeably higher too. At the same time, recruiting workers without any qualifications at all is a significant challenge.

Many local manufacturers, such as small textile factories, operate specialized bus routes to transport employees to their workplaces and take them home. In certain cases, these buses cover distances of 35–40 kilometers one way.

For reference: the average width of Moldova’s territory from west to east is about 150 km, and its length from north to south is approximately 350 km. The example mentioned above clearly illustrates one of the main challenges closely linked to the country’s population size: the issue of the labor force, specifically, the number of people who are physically capable of working.

The number of working people at the end of 2022 was estimated to be 890,000 people in total, with only 27,000 of them being unemployed.

Most Moldovan employers are not delving into the intricacies of sociology, demography, or migration. They are simply trying to find ways to handle each situation to the best of their abilities. An increasingly popular solution is to attract immigrant workers from other countries, primarily from the Central Asian republics.

The reasons for this are purely rational, perhaps even cynical. The average standard of remuneration in Uzbekistan, in terms of Moldovan lei, is about 5,000 (€260), and in Tajikistan it is even lower at around 3,800 Moldovan lei (€198). Consistently high population growth and a weak economy do not always make it possible to find employment at that salary. In Moldova, however, there are good employment opportunities available and plenty of demand for immigrant workers.

In addition, the regularly depreciating exchange rate of the Russian ruble, coupled with the attempts of the Russian authorities to attract labor migrants to participate in the war in Ukraine or to work in the occupied Ukrainian territories, do not motivate citizens of those countries to choose Russia as a migration destination.

At the same time, Moldova maintains a visa-free regime with nearly all Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan, while Moldovan employers, for obvious reasons, have also no complaints about the level of Russian language proficiency among visiting workers.

Some employers still attempt to take advantage of this situation by hiring foreign workers without completing the necessary documentation. In small towns and villages, though, it is challenging to hide such workers while fines for illegal employment have increased. As a result, many employers are willing to follow all the required paperwork procedures. Typically, a work contract with a salary of 11,000 Moldovan lei (even after taxes) is sufficient to qualify for a residence permit on work grounds.

For an increasing number of employers, this has become a clear solution. In addition, xenophobia as an everyday routine is highly uncommon in the impoverished Moldovan hinterland. As many are aware, each newly opened production facility, even if staffed with migrant workers, ensures road repairs in the area and the opening of several new stores. These developments also allow local residents to rent out housing to the visiting workers, among other benefits.

As a result, the Moldovan issue of attracting a working-age population and the problem of population decrease are two separate concerns. Attracting temporary workers for production, whether for a year or even several years, is not too challenging, especially if we move away from stereotypes about ‘the poorest country in Europe.’ However, addressing the broader problem of population decline is a much more complex issue.

What About Transnistria?

Official statistics collected by the National Bureau of Statistics since 2006 do not include any information regarding the demographic situation in Transnistria. In this connection, all the data presented in this article does not pertain to the population and territory that is de facto not controlled by the Moldovan authorities. No independent and separate studies whatsoever have been conducted in this territory since then. In 2004 and 2015, however, the self-proclaimed Transnistrian administration independently organized and conducted two population censuses.

According to their data, it was claimed that in 2015 slightly over 475,000 people were permanent residents of the region. These figures, though, do not withstand scrutiny and no databases were provided forprovided for assessment. assessment. On average, as of early 2023, the population of Transnistria is estimated to be between 305,000 and 310,000 people, with about a third of them residing in Tiraspol and about a quarter of them in the city of Bendery.

Evaluating the socio-demographic situation proves challenging without access to detailed data. Nonetheless, it can be observed that the rate of depopulation in the region is occurring at an even faster pace than in the right-bank part of Moldova.

Forecasts and Probabilities

According to the demographic forecast, made by specialists from the Center for Demographic Research of Moldova, the most likely (average) scenario in the near future is a decrease in population by the year 2040 to the level of 1.925 million people, which is a decline of 28.2%.

However, both negative and positive scenarios also exist. If the negative forecast comes true, by 2040 the population will decrease to 1.755 million, which is by 34.5%. In the most positive case (which is somewhat realistic and yet is the best of all possible outcomes mathematically) the population decline will stop at 2.095 million people in 2040, in other words it will decrease by 21.5%.

What is not feasible for any development is a scenario in which the population increases or even remains at the level of approximately 2.513 million, as of the beginning of 2023.

The Specter of Depopulation

Looking at the experience of Eastern European countries, we can see that they have taken certain measures to try to reverse negative demographic trends and counteract large emigration. Most of these actions, however, did not yield success. Despite Poland and Romania’s efforts to encourage the return of emigrants, their endeavors have not produced noticeable results. In 2023, these countries still grapple with many unresolved emigration problems and challenging demographic scenarios that loom ahead in the very near future.

The situation in the Republic of Moldova is similar. Despite the implementation of numerous policies aimed at enticing the Moldovan diaspora back to their homeland, these efforts have not yet yielded statistically significant outcomes. The number of people coming from other countries with the intention of settling and integrating into Moldovan society is extremely modest, even considering the country’s small size. For instance, in 2021, just over 4,800 foreigners arrived in Moldova and continuously resided in the country for more than a year (this method of tracking is designed to exclude tourists). Of these, only 85 were repatriates, meaning citizens of other countries who requested the restoration of citizenship of the Republic of Moldova based on legal grounds. Such figures are unquestionably statistically insignificant and, therefore, significant improvements in the situation cannot be expected based on these indicators.

Is There a Solution?

It appears largely ineffective to rely on tactics that limit themselves to merely urging the Moldovan diaspora to return, scattered as they are throughout almost all EU countries, the USA, Canada, Australia, and beyond. Despite the political appeal of these methods, the more developed European countries have not succeeded in using them. As the statistics from Ireland, Poland, and Romania demonstrate, they have actively tried to attract their citizens back home yet the effectiveness of their methods of persuasion remain extremely low.

It seems like a much greater effect may be achieved through consistent and systematic investments in the quality of human capital within the country. In the simplest terms, the quality of human capital refers to the level and quality of education received as well as the overall physical, moral, and psychological health of the population. This implies that investments should be directed towards two specific areas: education and healthcare.

In our context, it would be advisable to include some basic infrastructural improvements as well. This should include, at a minimum, well-built asphalt roads that would effectively connect at least fifteen major cities in Moldova, each with a population of more than 20,000 people.

Simultaneously, given the urgent demand for more labor in Moldova, it is essential to streamline the process of bringing in foreign workers even if such actions are likely to generate significant, albeit largely populist, criticism.

The current economic situation in Moldova would not immediately make jobs in the country particularly enticing for well-qualified migrants from developed EU countries, many of whom belong to the Moldovan diaspora.

However, attracting industrious individuals who are ready to work under existing conditions, officially, with proper documentation and tax payments to Moldova’s state budget, while also providing them with legal avenues for full integration into Moldovan society, is feasible. Moreover, this can be accomplished in a relatively short timeframe without extensive long-term financial investments.

Translated from Russian by Kun