In the Soviet Union context Lithuania was considered to be relatively affluent and prosperous region. However, in the 1990s, when it regained its independence and started democratic development, a huge gap had to be filled to meet even the basic standards of EU. While the economy is growing at the fast pace, Lithuania remains a peripheral and rather poor region in the context of the Western countries. Nowadays, extreme population decline and socio-spatial inequality pose a threat to stability, observes doctoral candidate Rūta Ubarevičienė (OTB).
Young people in particular are seeking their salvation in Western Europe. Owing to the lack of sufficient perspective to find work in their own country, many are trying their luck in popular countries like the United Kingdom, Norway and Ireland. “As a result, Lithuania is second only to the Northern Mariana Islands as the country with the most rapidly declining population on the planet. The population decreased by 20 to 25 per cent in the last twenty years,” explains Rūta Ubarevičienė. “A failure to acknowledge this trend by politicians and planners will, over time, inevitably lead to problems.”
For her doctoral research, ‘Socio-spatial change in Lithuania. Depopulation and increasing spatial inequalities’, she compared data from a large number of Lithuanian municipal records. This shows that the population decline in a number of regions of the Baltic country is as much as fifty per cent. This is not solely due to migration to other countries. Because work is concentrated in a few cities, there is also migration to the country's capital Vilnius and to a lesser extent to Klaipėda and Kaunas. This trend runs contrary to the spatial policy of the Communist era, which was aimed at decentralisation and keeping the cities small. The result is that many rural regions are contending with vacated homes and schools and a decline in the level of facilities.
Domestic dynamics are also creating segregation. Decent accommodation in the capital requires a good income, because housing prices here are not much lower than those in Western European cities. “Wages, however, are 3.5 times less,” says Ubarevičienė. “That is why many people who can, migrate abroad.”According to Ubarevičienė, this development is particularly threatening because of a lack of strategy to counter the new situation. The premise in prognoses and plans is that the population decline is a temporary phenomenon. Regional planning continues to focus on growth. Ubarevičienė expects, however, that without a drastic reduction in the population decline, it will lead to major problems within a decade. The growing economy will be faced with serious labour shortages and an ageing working population. Segregation is a potential source of social unrest. Was Lithuania not better off under the Soviet Union? “Absolutely not: the independence in 1990 is still celebrated as the most important event in our history,” says Ubarevičienė. “However, the free movement of people and goods within the EU has resulted in unforeseen consequences.” According to her, a revision of the education and tax systems could help reverse the current downward spiral. It is more important, however, for the Lithuanian government to adapt its planning strategies to the new reality.
There is at least one development that provides hope. For a long time the other two Baltic countries had a rapidly declining population as well, but recently the population of Estonia has stabilised. It could be the beginning of a turnaround.