Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Moldovan exodus

The final results of the marginally controversial 2004 Moldovan census have been released. It's official: The Moldovan population has fallen from more than 4.3 million people in 1989, to just 3.4 million in 2004 excluding the separatist Transnistria area in the east, rising to a bit under 3.8 million if one includes Transnistria's resident population. Moldova has shared in the fertility collapses and mortality increases that have beset most of post-Communist Europe, though less so than most. Although the country has a falling and below-replacement fertility rate, judging by the figures provided Moldovan women are about as likely to bear children as their Dutch or Swedish counterparts, while Moldovan birth rates are still--barely--higher than Moldovan death rates.

Why, then, has Moldova's population contracted by a quarter? Mass emigration is to blame. Soviet rule built an ambiguous Moldovan national identity, and created a relatively prosperous economy that attracted immigrants. Moldovan independence, coinciding as it did with the collapse of the Soviet economy and the civil war withy the Russophone region of Transnistria, changed this situation entirely. If Moldovans identified themselves as Romanians, Moldova could have escaped from its current situation by unifying with Romania, but the fact that three times as many people claimed to speak "Moldovan" as their first language rather than "Romanian" speaks to the strength of Moldovan national identity. Moldova is now one of the poorest countries of Europe is not the poorest, with blocked prospects for change on almost every front: talks with Transnistria keep failing, the economy remains stagnant, and public life seems to favour emigration rather than revolution.

Where do Moldovans go? Unsurprisingly, given historical links, Russia is the largest receiving country for Moldovans, although an estimated three hundred thousand Moldovans hold Romanian citizenship and appear to be echoing Romanian patterns of emigration to the southern tier of European Union states. Russia's recent retaliation against Moldovan wine exports might augur moves against Moldovan guest workers in Russia, however, possibly encouraging a new concentration on western and central Europe. If one thing is certain, it is that regardless of the direction of the emigration, it will continue. The push and pull factors that triggered this migration remain, alas.

Moldovan emigration is important on its own terms, not only for the effects of this massive emigration on Moldova but for the effect that it has on receiving countries. Moldova represents a sure pool of potential migrants for central European countries suffering population decline; already, something like one percent of the population of Romanian citizens are Moldovans. Moldova also should be studied as a prototype for rapid population decline in peripheral states; the Moldovan example has been echoed in the independent South Caucasus, arguably also in an East Germany where the population has shrunk by a quarter since reunification. Moldova's example demonstrates that, when economic conditions become sufficiently bad and/or when the benefits accuring to emigrants become sufficiently great, regional and national populations can contract at speeds more reminiscent of wartime depopulation than anything else. Where Moldova goes now, perhaps any number of relatively small and relatively impoverished states (Serbia, Paraguay, Cuba, Laos, Lesotho) in the future, perhaps--who knows?--even much larger countries.

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