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Baltic Youth Yearn for Greener Pastures

Baltic Youth Yearn for Greener Pastures

An alarming number of young Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians would like to move westward

by Zsolt Nyiri


Since 1990, the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have made an unprecedented transition from Soviet republics to member states of the European Union, and members of NATO since 2004. While they are not large in geographical size or population -- the three countries combined have about 7 million people -- they occupy an important intersection of Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe.

All of these countries have experienced impressive economic development in recent years. The growth rate of the gross domestic product in the second quarter of 2006 was much higher in Estonia (11.8%), Latvia (11.1%), and Lithuania (9.2%) than the EU average (2.9%), according to Eurostat data. Moreover, unemployment rates are lower in the Baltic region -- ranging from 4.2% in Estonia to 7.2% in Latvia -- than the European average (8.0%). The three countries are rightfully considered success stories for post-communist transition, having all effectively transformed their economies from inefficient state-controlled systems to growing free-market systems -- earning them the moniker "Baltic tigers."

Against these positive economic indicators, the opinions of Baltic-country residents reveal a different picture, according to a recent Gallup World Poll. Most do not see great opportunities at home, and Baltic youth are particularly likely to say they'd rather live in some other part of Europe.

Labor Drain

The free flow of labor is an essential freedom of the EU. That flow is in some cases restricted by original EU members faced with a deluge of workers from new member states, although most countries are willing to suffer the short-term growing pains in order to reap the long-term benefits of a deeper labor pool. Less, however, is said about possible labor shortages created by the drain of young Baltic workers from their native countries.

Gallup World Poll data suggest this is a real threat. As the graph indicates, when people in the Baltic countries were asked whether they would move to another country permanently if they could afford to, or continue to live in their own countries, about one in five Latvians and Estonians, and one in three Lithuanians, said they would leave.

The figures among the youngest generation in all three countries are even more alarming. A full two-thirds (66%) of Lithuanians aged 15 to 24 would like to move permanently to another country. Forty-four percent of the Estonians and 36% of the Latvians in that age category say the same.

Would-be emigrants were also asked about their preferred destination. The majority in all three Baltic countries say they would like to go to another European country, and most of those to another EU member state. Fewer than one-third in each country say they would move to "some other place in the world" outside of Europe. Members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, i.e., former Soviet republics such as Russia and Ukraine, are at the bottom of the list. Nevertheless, 8% to 9% of Estonians and Latvians say they would like to move to a CIS country; both of these countries are home to a considerable number of Russians, who are more likely than others in the population to name a CIS country as their preferred destination.

The eagerness of so many young people in the Baltic States to leave their native countries, combined with the fact that many European regions have shortages of skilled laborers and are easing restrictions on expatriate workers from fellow EU member states, points to serious potential problems for the Baltic States. This is a crucial time for governments and businesses in the region to provide opportunities that will not only attract foreign investors, but maintain the confidence of their own workers as well.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with representative samples of approximately 1,000 residents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, aged 15 and older, conducted in June and July 2006. Interviews were conducted in Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Russian. Households were selected at random, and respondents within households were chosen at random according to the "latest birthday" method.

For results based on these samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the approximate error attributable to sampling, weighting, and other random effects is ±3 percentage points for a percentage at 50%. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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