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Lithuania's Emigration Crisis

While the political conversation in Western Europe revolves around immigration, over in the East it's all about convincing anyone to stay.

by Gavin Haynes
13 March 2018, 8:45am

(Mark Dunn / Alamy Stock Photo)

You say hello, they say goodbye: it’s an under-reported fact that every immigrant is also an emigrant. This has consequences.

Poland has donated 2.4 percent of its population to the UK alone – but nowhere exemplifies the crisis better than Lithuania. With a 12 percent population drop just in the past decade, few societies outside of war or famine have experienced a similar vanishing of the smart, the able-bodied, and the motivated.

In late 2016, Lithuania’s ongoing crisis briefly skimmed the Western European eyeline when it was reported that an anti-emigration party had swept to power in their national elections. This apparent reverse-UKIP, the Lithuanian Farmers And Greens Union, went from just one parliamentary seat at the previous count, to 54. Emigration was top of their policy platform, and a 2016 poll put the issue as the number one concern of Lithuanian voters. Thirty percent of respondents assigned it the top score on a seven-point scale.

This perhaps makes sense in a country where there are more than double 45 to 54-year-olds as 10 to 19-year-olds. Where some 82 percent of high school kids tell surveys that they are contemplating emigration. Even if these kids were persuaded to stay, given present birth rates, it would take 50 years just to claw back their losses. “It’s a very sensitive issue,” one consular official admits. “We try to frame it positively, but everyone can see what’s happening.”

We in the West don’t quite get that sensitivity. In a nation where the beaches were often boarded-off with razor wire to prevent citizens escaping from the open prison of the USSR, the idea of free travel has a big emotional footprint on the streets of Vilnius.

You build a wall to stop people coming in and people say you have a “sensible, managed-migration policy”. But you build a wall to stop people leaving? Everyone jumps down your neck like you’re some kind of tyrant.

Joining the EU in 2004 led to a flurry of economic activity in all directions. From 2005 to 2007, the boom times finally rolled in. “But underneath them, the problem was in the ‘stealth’ phase,” explains Gintaras Šumskas, of Lithuanian think-tank The Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis. “It was already visible to experts, but still not within the public discourse.”

The crash fixed that. “2010 and 2011 had a crucial symbolic meaning for the perception of immigration,” Šumskas continues. “In 2010, we set a post-independence record for outbound migration. Then, the census of 2011 produced a striking symbolic result. A population of 3.6 million had shrunk to barely 3 million.”

In many ways, the Farmers And Greens were no different to any other Lithuanian party on the make. Their populist manifesto made a big play of getting to grips with emigration, but then – so does everyone. “Every party will campaign on the issue, but then they all understand there is very little that can be done,” shrugs our consular official.

To incentivise the young to stay, The Farmers and Greens are making big reforms to the sluggish post-Soviet labour code, but it’s probably still too early to say what effect this has had. Besides, labour market fluidity is something of a sideshow when the average monthly wage is still under €700. In that context, it can seem hopeless: the logic of EU free movement is as remorseless as economic gravity, tipping the most mobile of the poor countries into the laps of the rich ones.

The flipside, of course, is the money they ship home. In 2012, for instance, emigrant Lithuanians sent home around £1 billion in remittances. That’s roughly half of the country’s pensions budget, or about the same amount that the government receives annually in net inflows from the EU budget. But most still believe that the skills and economic activity displaced isn’t compensated by the cash.

“The issue is quite clear,” sighs the consular official. “Everybody knows it. It seems like global warming – we should be more worried, but what can you do, day to day? There are more and more kids doing it. They finish school or university. It’s feasible for them to just go now – because everybody knows enough people.”

Yet despite the obvious character of their crisis, and despite Western Europeans’ faith in the need for ever-more migrants to replace an ageing population, there is still no similar appetite for population replacement in the East. In fact, from Hungary to Poland, these were the states that refused point-blank to take their share of Merkel’s migrants in 2015. For the Baltic nations in particular, it chimed a bit too familiarly with history: the Russification policies of the Stalin era meant that the USSR used mass-migration of ethnic Russians in an attempt to erase the Baltics’ national identities.

It’s still very hard for non-EU nationals to work legally in Lithuania. Though, as Šumskas says, it’s now common to see Ukrainians now working illegally in the streets of Vilnius. “They are often employed by Poles," he says, "so they have a back door into legality.”

In 2017, the demographic exit tide at least began to show a few signs of improvement. While there was yet another fresh record on emigration (50,000), there was also a record amount of immigration: 23,500. Two-thirds of those were returning Lithuanians.

It’s a strange fate for a people who once had their own empire. In medieval times, the Grand Duchy Of Lithuania covered a vast area: from Moldova in the East right through Belarus, on to Latvia and through Poland. Now, Lithuania has gone on the globalisation diet, and there’s no limit to the number of dress sizes it could drop.

@gavhaynes