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“Suitcase Mood”: Why Ukrainians Are Moving Abroad

Six and a half million Ukrainians, or 14.4 percent of the population, are emigrants. Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Portugal and Spain among the most popular emigration destinations according to Migration in Ukraine: Facts and Figures [.pdf], a report published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Ukraine's population of approximately 45.5 million people “is shrinking by 330,000 per year,” says the IOM report, and emigration, no doubt, contributes to this downward demographic trend.

The theme of leaving Ukraine temporarily or for good comes up regularly in conversations that Ukrainians are having online.

For example, one may be looking at MP Mykola Kniazhytsky's Facebook item [uk] about the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013, in which Ukraine comes in 73rd out of 144 countries ranked, and see this comment [uk], by user Mykhaylo Kalinichenko:

It's futile to expect economic growth in Ukraine. Everyone is trying to escape from it as quickly as possible. [...]

Or, one may be reading this post [ru] by LJ user metalina_888, in which she talks about the crisis in Ukraine's metal production industry, blaming it on the metallurgical plant owners’ unwillingness to invest in modernization, and then one runs into this comment [ru] by LJ user nik968, who offers the following explanation:

Our oligarchs are panicking and don't know what to do. The majority of them are preparing for an escape, because they are just too afraid to put up some resistance [to the current regime]. [...]

The issue of relocation comes up even in discussions of such local problems as, say, the unfinished subway construction in Donetsk, which has been going on since the early 1980s, with little to show except for the heavily flooded pit where Proletarskaya Station was supposed to be [video; ru]. Yevgeniy Ikhelzon wrote this [ru] on Facebook:

[...] I don't know if subway ever appears in Donetsk and whether there is any need for it, but, with all the money allotted [for its construction throughout the years], they could have built a whole new town, somewhere near a warm sea. So that any Donetsk resident could leave and not see these [ugly faces of the local bureaucrats].

A map of geographical distribution of Ukrainian labor migrants by regions of origin. Source: International Organization for Migration (IOM)

A map of geographical distribution of Ukrainian labor migrants by regions of origin. Source: International Organization for Migration (IOM)

For years, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been a source of cheap labor abroad, feeding their families back home – and, to some extent, feeding Ukraine's economy – with their money transfers. Labor migrants, known as zarobitchany in Ukrainian, make up the bulk of Ukraine's expat community. Below are some relevant observations from the IOM report:

  • The unemployment rate rose from 6.8% in 2006 to 8.1% in 2010. In 2010, 545,000 Ukrainian citizens were recorded as unemployed. If employment abroad was impossible, the unemployment rate in Ukraine in 2008 is estimated to have been 1.5 times higher.

 

  • The average migrant wage abroad was USD 820 in 2008, which was almost 3 times higher than the average salary in Ukraine (USD 281).

 

  • Hypothetical models estimate that the Ukrainian economy would have lost about 7% of its potential without the stimulating effects of migrant transfers [...].

 

  • Ukrainian labor migration, at least to a certain extent, can be characterized by ‘brain waste’ [...]. Only few of the migrants manage to find jobs abroad corresponding to their qualification levels [...].

 

  • The dominant types of economic activity among Ukrainian labor migrants are construction, more prevalent among men, and domestic care, more common among women.

For years, too, have the upper-echelon compatriots of zarobitchany kept their fortunes in offshore tax havens (which is why Cyprus has been the largest foreign investor in Ukraine, before the current troubles began anyway) or “invested” in expensive real estate abroad (e.g., in 2008, Olena Franchuk, ex-President Leonid Kuchma‘s daughter and businessman Victor Pinchuk‘s wife, was reported to have acquired a villa in London for £80 million, and in 2011, Ukraine's wealthiest person, Rinat Akhmetov, paid £136.4 million for a London apartment).

Recently, however, a new type of exodus seems to have begun, as a number of Ukrainian opposition politicians and entrepreneurs relocated to Europe – and some were even granted political asylum there. MP Anatoliy Hrytsenko mentioned [uk] the most prominent cases on his Facebook page:

[Former Acting Defense Minister Valeriy Ivaschenko has been granted political asylum] in Denmark. [Ex-Minister of Economy Bohdan Danylyshyn and ex-MP Andriy Shkil] are in the Czech Republic, [ex-Head of State Reserves Committee Mykhailo Pozhyvanov] is in Austria, [entrepreneur Denis Oleinikov] is in Croatia…

[Billionaire Ihor Kolomoysky] is in Switzerland, [businessman and ex-First Vice PM Valery Khoroshkovsky] is in France, [businessman Vitaly Hayduk] has transferred his business to South Africa, [businessman Yevhen Chernyak] – to Russia, [businessman Eduard Prutnik] has sold everything and is abroad, too…

[...]

Dozens, if not hundreds, of names of lesser-known people could be added to this list; above all, the entrepreneurs who, [following the election of Victor Yanukovych as the President of Ukraine], left and/or moved their businesses abroad. There are people like this in every region of Ukraine, with no exceptions.

[...]

It's hard to stop these people, hard to find arguments… Not everyone is prepared to be patient and to suffer, people want to live in peace and security today, not tomorrow. [...]

Hrytsenko's post has generated a discussion of nearly 130 comments, and the two of them translated below illustrate just how painful the issues he brought up are for ordinary citizens.

User Natalia Levchenko wrote [uk]:

[...] Why do I have to run away from my own country? But they aren't letting us live. What's the future of my children and grandchildren? God forbid, they find themselves in a wrong place at a wrong time. Is it possible to hope for justice? [...] I do not own a business, do not have bank accounts or real estate, I have nothing to go abroad with, I want to live peacefully [...] at home.

User Alexander Shapovalov wrote [ru]:

[People who lack imagination] comment more or less similarly: these are the thieves, the oligarchs! I agree. [...] But there are many people who were not mentioned by [Anatoly Hrytsenko] – ordinary people who are tired of living in a country of [total lawlessness and corruption], and they are leaving and taking their brains and business with them [...].

Back in January, journalist Vitaly Haidukevych surveyed [uk] his Facebook audience of nearly 2,500 users on their attitudes towards emigration:

Friends, who of you would like to leave Ukraine because [the situation is hopeless]? [...] Let's tackle the topic of “got to go.” Disappointment and the suitcase mood…

He received a variety of responses, and below are two comments, out of nearly 300 that follow Haidukevych's inquiry.

Vitaliy Yermak [ru]:

One has to leave quietly, or else they'll soon introduce a tax on leaving.

Andrij Romanov [uk]:

People ran, are running and will run. So many have left [Western Ukraine] for Italy, Portugal and the Czech Republic, and have not returned, and more will leave. It's just that [mostly people from] the provinces used to be leaving before, and now Kyiv is moving as well. People are taking their kids to study to Poland and some even further! It's a difficult situation in the EU now, but it's still livable, while in Yanukovych's Ukraine it's 100 times harder! Me, I came to the Czech Republic five days ago, sit here without a job, but I'm not going back home.

And here are some of Haidukevych's conclusions [uk]:

[...] The suitcase mood is there. [...] Young, promising people have it. [...] Since they are young, they are leaving not for the sake of immediate earnings [...], but to grow roots for the future. [...] I assume that these people asked themselves whether it was possible to change the state of things in the country – and the answer was ‘no'. [...] Some are leaving for exactly the same reason others are reluctant to join [the anti-regime] protests – they care about themselves, their families and their future. [...] “what are those rapid movements for, you've got kids, think about them” – this is what those who've stayed think. And those who are leaving [...] do not want to wait for the tax authorities to come and take away their last pair of underpants. [...]

For more views on emigration from Ukraine, please see this GV text by Tetyana Bohdanova, published in February 2011.

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