In the Thick of It

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Back in the USSR: Are Residents of Former Republics Better Off 30 Years Later?

December 16, 2021
RM Staff

Thirty years ago this month, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics officially ceased to exist. The 15 republics which had made up the Soviet Union were confronted with uncertain paths as they endeavored to establish political structures and reform economic systems. They faced unresolved territorial questions, socio-economic crises and an ambiguity about which direction to take in the future. Thirty years on, quantitative indicators show that despite turbulence, the residents of most individual republics are now better off in some measures than they were at independence. All 15 republics have seen life expectancy improve since 1991, and 14 of the 15 have seen a decrease in poverty levels since the mid-1990s, though gains have not been equal. (Our ability to draw comparisons with Soviet days were limited for some indicators due to lack of data, forcing us to draw comparisons with the mid-1990s instead.) As important, a recent poll shows that adults in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia are overwhelmingly nostalgic for Soviet days.

This graph shows life expectancy at birth, which indicates the expected number of years a newborn would live if patterns of mortality at the time of birth remained the same throughout its life. Every country of the former USSR shows some growth in life expectancy, although six republics—Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Moldova and the Kyrgyz Republic—remain below the global average life expectancy of 72.7 years. It is still unclear how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect these numbers, but there are indications of a substantial decline in some countries of the former USSR.

This graph shows gross domestic product converted to constant international dollars, which adjust for inflation, using purchasing power parity rates, which help account for price differences in different countries. The Baltic republics are among the best performers. Estonia’s GDP PPP per capita increased by 177%, while Latvia’s rose by 215% and Lithuania’s by 245%. GDP PPP per capita fell for Ukraine, Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic.

This graph shows unemployment as a percentage of the total labor force, where unemployment refers to the share of the labor force that is without work but available for and seeking employment. Unemployment rates in the former Soviet republics, excluding Russia, were at their lowest in 1991, according to available data. Russia’s unemployment rate dipped below its 1991 level of 5.13% in 2018 and 2019 before rising to 5.73% in 2020, likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Armenia’s unemployment rate rose the most from 1.6% in 1991 to 20.2% in 2020, while Turkmenistan’s remains the lowest at 4.4%, which is still an increase from the low of 1.4% in 1991. (Unemployment statistics for the former Soviet Union often require further investigation due to the prevalence of underground or informal economic activity and other complications with counting the unemployed.)

Gini index measures the extent to which the distribution of income among individuals or households within an economy deviates from a perfectly equal distribution, according to the World Bank, with a Gini index of 0 representing perfect equality, and an index of 100 indicating perfect inequality. The Gini index in most Soviet republics has stayed about the same or fallen somewhat since the mid-1990s, indicating some mild gains in economic equality. Moldova and then Russia have the greatest drops in Gini index, with Moldova’s dropping from 37 in 1997 to 26 in 2018, while Russia’s fell from 48 in 1993—the highest indicator of economic inequality among the data—to 38 in 2018. According to the available data, only Tajikistan shows an increase in economic inequality, with a Gini index of 34 in 2015, up from 30 in 1999.

This indicator measures the percentage of the population ages 25 and over that attained or completed short-cycle tertiary education, which includes universities as well as trade schools and colleges. While data is missing, trends can be identified for some former Soviet republics. Most of the countries for which there is data saw increases in educational attainment. Moldova, for instance, which had the lowest educational attainment level at 15% in 2007, more than doubled that figure to 34% in 2019, on par with Latvia and Georgia, also at 34% in 2019. Another notable increase can be seen in Kazakhstan, whose educational attainment rose from 52% in 2009 to 74% in 2018. The Baltic states all also saw increases in educational attainment in the years reported. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan remained static at 25% from 2008 to 2019, while Armenia actually dropped by 1% from 44% in 2011 to 43% in 2020. The only available data for Russia shows educational attainment of 60% in 2010.

The percent of the population living on less than $5.50 (adjusted for PPP) a day has fallen in almost all countries since the mid-1990s. In the data available, only Uzbekistan showed an increase, going from 87% in 1998 to 96.4% in 2003, the last year with available data. In 2019, the Kyrgyz Republic had the highest percentage of its population living on less than $5.50 a day at 52.6%; however, that is a significant drop from 92.2% in 2000. Moldova showed that largest difference over time, dropping from 74.3% in 1997 to 12.8% in 2018. Of the former Soviet republics, Belarus has the smallest percentage of its population living on less than $5.50 at only 0.2% in 2019.

Most of the former Soviet republics have lost population. Latvia’s population declined by 29% since 1990. Tajikistan had the largest increase, with a population increase of 81% since 1990.

Of the 11 countries surveyed in the summer of 2016, Armenia was most nostalgic for the former USSR, with 71% of respondents saying life was better before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, according to Kommersant. Least nostalgic was Uzbekistan, with only 4% saying life was better in the USSR and 91% saying life was better after. Georgia was most evenly split, with 51% saying life was better before and 46% saying life was better after.

Photo by GuentherZ shared under a Creative Commons license.