When considering potential threats to Baltic stability, the first thing that comes to mind tends to be Russia. Unfortunately, mainstream discussion about the Baltic States tends to revolve almost entirely around Russia. This tendency makes it easy to overlook indicators that show a looming threat to Baltic stability: a steady decrease in the working-age population, driven by persistent emigration. As the situation worsens, the IMF has called on Lithuania to address its population decline. Without serious long-term planning, the Baltics face a potential demographic disaster.
A possible resolution to this problem could be attracting a working age immigrant population. Over time, the cost of sustaining an increasingly older population will prove fatal for a decreasing younger generation. Essentially, the financial strain on the younger generation to support a larger retired population could cause their systems could collapse. While each Baltic state faces its own particularities within its demographical situation, all three face a stable increase in ageing population through the years.
Out of the three, Latvia is the Baltic state with the most dramatic outlook in terms of population decline. Recent official Latvian statistics show how Latvia’s general population decline has steadily continued over the years. According to a 2017 UN report, Latvia will lose 15% of its population by 2050. On top of this, the Latvia Central Statistics concluded earlier this year that the level of demographic burden will continue to increase. Meaning, that the working age population is going to become smaller. One of the main sources of shrinkage in the working age population is emigration.
Meanwhile, Latvia’s neighbor, Lithuania, suffers from similar demographic issues. Its population is also expected to decrease by 15% as soon as 2050. In 2018, Lithuania’s general population also decreased. The Lithuanian department of statistics attributes 71% of the population drop to international migration. However, unlike Latvia, Lithuania’s emigration rate dropped by 5% in comparison to 2016. While this may seem like a positive indicator, we can also see that the percent of Lithuanian nationals who returned to Lithuania from Western Europe also decreased. Therefore, although less people left, fewer are also coming back to Lithuania.
Overall, Lithuania and Latvia face the biggest population declines in the EU. In contrast to other Baltic nations, Estonia’s population has stabilized after years of population decline. Although its rate of pensioners shows signs of slowing down, it continues to increase. At the same time, the working age population continues to decline and there are more Estonian citizens leaving the country than entering it. The reason negative net external migration did not translate into population decline is because the rate of immigration in Estonia increased. Therefore, immigration is delaying a population decline.
Estonia’s case demonstrates a possible resolution to Baltic demographic decline: attracting a working age immigrant population. Nonetheless, this solution could pose a set of challenges for the Baltics. For instance, the Baltics demonstrate strong protectionist attitude toward their culture and identities due to their historical background. This was shown when they refused to take in a significant number of refugees in 2015. Even Estonia’s quarterly bulletin of statistics mentions how maintaining Estonian ethnicity is an important topic for Estonians. After all, the number of ethnic Estonians is decreasing. The number of ethnic Latvians is also decreasing. Regardless, if the Baltics are to maintain a viable labor force capable of sustaining their economies, they should consider opening up to larger immigrant populations and incorporating integration programs that help them better adapt to Baltic society.
In conclusion, the Baltics are severely impacted by European patterns of decreasing birth rates and increasing ageing populations. The reason for the acute impact is their small populations and economies. To secure long term stability, the Baltics—particularly Latvia and Lithuania—must make their demographic decline a national priority.