How Latvia's shrinking population became a security threat

Demographers warn that on current trends, a population of two million could fall to 1.3 million by mid-century as more Latvians emigrate within Europe and fewer babies are born at home. 

Ints Kalnins/Reuters
A worker inspects tomatoes in the greenhouse of a waste management company in Riga, Latvia, June 30, 2015. A Soviet-era rubbish dump in a swamp on the outskirts of Riga was once an obstacle to Latvia's EU membership. Now, it's becoming a model of the resource-use and waste management EU policy-makers are striving to promote.

A quarter century after it threw off the Soviet yoke, Latvia find itself warily watching its giant neighbor to the east and ramping up its defense budget.

But this small Baltic nation faces another, equally parlous threat to its security: depopulation.

Its population of nearly two million is down by more than a quarter since 1990. At the time, Latvia saw an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Russians who had been resettled under Soviet rule and chose to return to Russia.

In 2004, Latvia joined the European Union, a major milestone. But far from arresting the decline, EU membership spurred another 10 percent drop in population, or close to a quarter of million people. And with a falling birth rate, the trend lines continue to be negative. 

Today there are so many Latvians living abroad that they have their own ambassador. Peteris Karlis-Elferts, a Seattle native of Latvian descent, previously served as ambassador to Ireland, a popular destination for footloose Latvians. “Population decline and emigration are a reality,” he says.

During his time in Dublin, Mr. Karlis-Elferts found himself serving a cohort of 30,000 Latvian expatriates. “It was sort of like being mayor of a Latvian town—in Ireland,” said Mr. Karlis-Elferts, who retains his American accent and sense of humor. 

He needs it. Persuading Latvian emigrants to come home is tough: monthly wages average 375 euros, one of the lowest in the EU, and health insurance is hard to obtain. To lure back its citizens, the government offers assistance with jobs and schooling, and for Latvian descendants like who Karlis-Elferts who wish to return to their motherland, there are special language classes. 

Karlis-Elferts and his colleagues can claim some success. In 2014, 8,800 Latvians moved home, while 17,400 emigrated, a net loss of 8,600, a lower rate than in preceding years. And the country's largely service-based economy has rebounded since a deep recession in 2009-11 that saw a major exodus of Latvians. 

But Latvians who do stay or return home are having fewer babies. The birth rate of 1.2 per family is the second lowest in Europe, and well below what experts consider to be a minimum replacement rate of 2.1 births per family.  

“If things keep going the same way there will hardly be any Latvians left at the end of the century,” says Ilmars Mezs, a demographer and head of the International Organization for Migration in Latvia. He calculates that if current trends continue the population would fall to 1.3 million by 2050.

Mr. Mezs is bucking the trend: He has six children. And he argues that Latvia offers scant welfare benefits for large families compared to neighboring Estonia, where the population of 1.3 million is stable.

Footloose youth weigh their patriotism

Business leaders want the government to do more to persuade Latvians to stay put in the first place. “The government could do much more to make life more attractive for young people,” says Bernhard Loew, a hotel manager and Austrian native who moved to Riga in 2000.

He points to inadequate healthcare and a lack of apprenticeships for young people as push factors. “The lure of higher wages and better conditions in other EU countries is just too strong for many to resist. Then people hear about how much better they can supposedly do elsewhere and grow resentful, or leave.”

Alice Lilientale, who is studying tourism management at Vidzeme University in Valmiera, agrees. Her mother has moved to Ireland during the recession to find better paying work, while she and her father chose to stay put. 

“I love my country, and I love my language, and I am pained that both are threatened," she says. "I want to stay in Latvia and make my future here, but the government needs to do much more. It needs to show that it cares as much about us as well as defense and other matters. We are the country’s defense too.”

Rihards Kols, the parliamentary secretary to Latvia’s prime minister, says the government understands such frustrations. “Population decrease is a major issue with us,” he says. The government is doing its best to tackle demographic challenges and put a higher priority on family welfare, he says.

Mr. Kols, who is also vice chairman of the parliament’s committee on foreign affairs, offers himself as a possible role model. He went to university in London and now, aged 30, has become a rising star in Latvian political circles.

“I had a difficult time during the five years when I was abroad,” he says. “I worked as a waiter and a bartender, but I always knew that I wanted to come back to serve Latvia. And so I did. If I can do it, so can others.”

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