It is hard not to be painfully aware of the immense extent of emigration from Lithuania. The topic has, however, been a breadwinner for Donatas Burneika, the director of Lithuania’s Institute of Human Geography and Demography, who has spent many of his days and nights contemplating the tricky question of why so many Lithuanians are still packing up and leaving. Burneika kindly agreed to answer a few questions from The Baltic Times.
How did you end up focusing on emigration?
Because I am a geographer by profession, and have dealt mainly with regional and urban development. I was born in the western Lithuanian town of Raseiniai, and later I moved to Vilnius, where from 1989 to 2000 I studied geography at Vilnius University.
Then I defended a doctoral thesis in the field of economic geography and soon after I started my research career at the Institute of Geography.
Currently, I am head of the Institute of Human Geography and Demography and regional and urban studies, as well as socio-economic geography, are my main fields of interest. On top of this, I am a member of the Council of Lithuanian Society of Geographers, and a part-time professor at Vilnius University.
How important and defining an issue is emigration for Lithuania?
Obviously, many factors are important to a country’s well-being, but in the European context, emigration has been one of the most adverse phenomena for Lithuania . I’d say it has been a key factor for our economy until recently, in the years from 2010-2012, when the depopulation started bottoming out.
How would you explain that despite the economies of other EU states such as Bulgaria and Romania, being comparatively weaker than Lithuania’s, Bulgarians and Romanians are still more likely than Lithuanians to stay in their homeland?
The parallel is interesting. If the strength of an economy were the main driving forcing determining the scope of emigration, depopulation in the aforementioned two countries would be a lot bigger and more detrimental than in Lithuania. But now it is not the case. So it means there must be other reasons to be taken into consideration.
What are they?
What comes off the top of my head first are social relations in Lithuania, where among our people and local communities they are pretty weak. They are particularly so in Lithuanian countryside. Our institute has done some research and concluded that where local communities are strong and tight-knit, the inhabitants are more well-to-do and members are more likely to stay than places where cohesiveness and the sense of community are missing.
The other reasons are related to psychology. When somebody is deciding to emigrate or not, the person does usually rely in the process on the public’s perception of the chosen destination and the understanding of Lithuania abroad. From that standpoint, information about Lithuania, especially inside the country, are hardly so negative and bad in anywhere else in the EU. We just tend to continuously flagellate ourselves, not always deservedly, I’d note. And then we to our Lithuanian media that has been extremely negative for years - a result of the Soviet heritage to some extent perhaps. Besides, in a commercial sense, it’s always easier for media to attract the readers’ eyes with negative, sensational news. This has been changing lately, however, for the better, but there’s still a lot of negativity in the media, even compared to neighbouring Latvia.
Is it only the Soviet past that we have to blame for that?
Hardly. I believe we have to speak of our national character and how it was formed. I reckon we can speak of nation’s genetics here. I mean that all a country’s fears, inferiority complexes and deviances can be passed on from one generation to next. There are different takes on the reliability of this theory, but it makes sense to me to a certain extent in explaining the exodus from Lithuania.
Statistically, emigration from the Baltics has been considerably larger than from the rest Eastern and Central Europe. By the way, speaking on the whole, the more south we get, the lesser the extent of emigration is.
The Baltic region has always been a periphery — in both European and global terms — and its geographical latitude makes its residents more inclined to seek “to discover the world”, which is not a bad thing, I reckon.
Historically, during the Soviet era, the perception of being a periphery was not an issue – the three republics were conceived as most modern in the bloc and, in a sense, Western due to their history.
Very few people would want to leave Lithuania in those days, even for Moscow, the bloc’s capital. The feeling of periphery has become acute to the region with the three countries entering the European Union.
Moreover, we have become what I call “a negative periphery” not only for ourselves, but also in the eyes of the old European Union, too. Certainly, that weighs down on us. With the name of Lithuania and Lithuanians being mired in the slew of negativism, many of the compatriots started believing things cannot be or get any worse anywhere than in Lithuania. In that sense, we are quite different from the Hungarians and Slovenians, for example, who have not felt the tight grip of the Soviet Union and who enjoy much higher self-esteem.
The scale of emigration varies significantly from one region to another in Lithuania. Statistically, the population grew in Vilnius and some smaller towns, like Varena and Palanga, over the last couple of years, but the number of inhabitants continued falling in Siauliai, for example, which is the region that has been hit hardest by emigration. What is the reason for this disparity?
Perhaps no other country in Eastern and Central Europe has been so polycentric — meaning having many pretty equally and similarly developed towns — as Lithuania. We developed quite a few of them during the Soviet years – Siauliai, Panevezys, Klaipeda, Alytus, to name a few.
In terms of development, because of Lithuania’s historical background, we do not have, like other Eastern and Central European countries, some major hubs, but a string of similar-sized towns. With the new economic formation in place, capital investments have gone mostly to the largest cities – to Vilnius, Klaipeda аnd, to a lesser extent, to Kaunas.
This is happening in other countries, too, but, unlike them, internal emigration in Lithuania – moving from the smaller towns, which were industrial hubs in the Soviet period, to the large cities, particularly Vilnius — is weak.
Besides, and which is characteristic of polycentric countries, only very limited social relations among them have developed over the years. In other words, people living, for example, in Samogitia (a cultural region in northwestern Lithuania) had a very opaque understanding of what is going in Vilnius, the state’s capital.
Nowadays, note this, the people in the province now have more social contacts with their relatives in the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, for example, than in Vilnius or any other Lithuanian region. This is also very important when it comes to somebody’s decision where to go. Understandably, the person will be therefore rather choosing England than Vilnius.
How popular is the United Kingdom among emigrants?
The country remains the dominant destination for Lithuanian emigrants, though the numbers of UK-bound emigration are no so overwhelming nowadays as they were a couple of years ago. Scandinavia has been on the rise as well, with many new emigrants leaving for these countries over the last three years.
Notably, fewer Lithuanians are decamping nowadays to Ireland, which was severely hit by the 2008-2010 recession.
London and its vicinities, though, remain among the top UK destinations. London has got through the economic crunch quite smoothly and saw more Lithuanians coming therefore. Lithuania does have really strong social relations with the UK capital, so when it comes to leaving for the UK, the destination is pretty clear.
As London is a major world hub, many emigrants tend to say it’s easier to get assimilated into the community. Needless to say, the language barrier also plays a significant role when selecting country for departure. The UK has an advantage there too.
Lithuanian economists and planners estimate Lithuania will catch up with the Western Europe in terms of salaries and benefits in 50 years at least. Does that mean we will be seeing off our compatriots until 2065 at least?
Well, indeed, this is really a very subtle question. The bottom line is that emigration has been constant throughout Lithuania’s history.
Speaking about the issue in a broader sense, some scholars even believe that emigration is part of our genetics and biology – some research with rats has shown that after they reach maturity, they are eager to escape the usual environment. And that’s not even to speak of humans. So emigration, and the mixing-up of populations round the world, particularly with the world now being a much freer and borderless place, will only accelerate.
Look, the centralisation of population is ongoing in all major Western European capitals and London sits on top of the ranking. For me, the key question is about the difference of standards of living – at what point does somebody start mulling over whether to pack up and leave for a better life? Leaving behind their own house, family members, friends and everything else that attached them to their surroundings?
No definite research has been done into that.
But emigration cannot be viewed as simply an entirely bad thing. Look, the more people leave, the more resources we have left here for the rest of us.
Sure, as well as that, we will also have fewer labor resources, tax revenues and so on. The whole issue is not that easy and simple as it may appear.
Have you noticed that fears of Russia are playing on people’s minds and making them more likely to leave their homeland?
No, I haven’t seen any correlation between the two so far.
But sure, it could be an issue in the future – considering all of the possible consequences: like fewer investors willing to put their money in the Lithuanian economy, especially when it comes to long-term investments. There’s a possibility investors might be willing to invest in, let’s say, Poland if the geopolitical situation gets worse.
For now, it seems Lithuanians do not mostly believe Russian aggression is possible. On the other hand, high-profile statements on the danger for us, like that one from the UK Defence secretary, or from high profile NATO officials, tickle the nerves especially, and might nudge people to make a decision to leave the country at some point.
How is important to emigration is Lithuanians’ mistrust of their legislature and judiciary?
Obviously, this is one of the reasons for leaving for some. Lithuanians really mistrust their authorities and that has been a constant over the years. Perhaps even from the prewar time, when the Lithuanian Seimas and Government were largely perceived negatively. The media, in fact, have been stoking the fire, excoriating structures of power, necessarily or not.
But I really doubt whether on its own it could influence the decision. It seems to be an additional factor in decision-making. But certainly, it’s worth wondering why the people do not feel good about those in power.
Addressing the issue, maybe it would make sense to scale down the country’s administrative structure - found more municipalities, for example, which would be better able to tackle the needs of local residents.
I reckon with this, local communities would be revitalised and they could subsequently raise standards of living in the local area.
But once again, I want to reiterate: emigration is not necessarily only a bad thing. On the contrary: it can be a good thing, but it does have some adverse consequences.
Migration is a feature of modern times and, from that perspective, it’s pretty strange that some people have not gone anywhere nowadays.
Look, let’s get the situation in some rural villages and settlements straight: some of the folks, who are jobless, lacking social skills, are often also alcohol abusers and local troublemakers, are perhaps stopping other people and even small investors from coming in.
So it would be better for all if they left, but they just don’t. From that standpoint, emigration perhaps should be even encouraged. Some of the people, like in the aforementioned Siauliai Region, must leave, no matter where to – Vilnius or London. But leaving is in their interests.
When was the peak of Lithuanian emigration? And where does it stand now?
It peaked in 2010 and has been on the decline since then. To our estimate, it has shrunk from 82,000 in 2010 to 38,000 people last year. But the high 2010 statistics are partly due to the requirement at that time to report departure to local migration offices in order to avoid some of the taxes. According to the research by our Institute, roughly 600,000 people have left the country over the last 20 years, but the real stats are higher. No doubt about it.
The Lithuanian Department of Statistics’ official number is 270,000. The accuracy of the statistics is really an issue, since both sides argue about which of them is unable to spot all the Lithuanians beyond the borders.
Interview conducted by Linas Jegelevicius