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Ukraine Sees 'Brain Drain' as Its Best and Brightest Escape Chaos for the West

The war and the country’s economic collapse over the past year have many young people thinking harder now about exchanging the uncertainty of their motherland for the uncertainties and opportunities of new lives in another country

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This article originally appeared in The Washington Times

KHARKIVUkraine — Elvira Gorbunova came to Kharkiv in January, leaving her home in separatist-controlled Krasny Luch to escape dangers of living in a war zone. But she hopes Ukraine’s second-largest city is just a stop on her family’s journey to North America.

<figcaption>The ongoing security situation and lack of economic opportunities has Ukrainians leaving in droves for the West — and even Russia. However, some say the exodus will allow for new opportunities at home. (Associated Press)  </figcaption>
The ongoing security situation and lack of economic opportunities has Ukrainians leaving in droves for the West — and even Russia. However, some say the exodus will allow for new opportunities at home. (Associated Press)

“I don’t think we have any prospects here in Ukraine — plus we have a 1-year-old child,” said Ms. Gorbunova, a 30-year-old schoolteacher who is now a stay-at-home mother. “Another country will have more opportunities for a good education for him and a better future than here.”

The Gorbunovas are just a few in a long line of people trying to get out of the country since the conflict and economic crisis between the government and Russia-backed separatists exploded last year, with some worrying that Ukraine will lose some of its best and brightest.

“The latest events in Ukraine [have] definitely escalated the brain drain,” said Oleksiy Pozniak, head of the migration department in the Kiev-based Demographics and Sociology Institute. “The war is not at fault as much as the economic crisis that increased the gap between the incomes of the professionals in Ukraine and in the West.”

Brainpower has long been a major Ukrainian export. The collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent economic crisis drove hundreds of thousands of people, many highly skilled and educated, to leave annually in the 1990s, according to Ukrainian government figures cited in a 2012 migration study prepared for the European Commission.

The drain slowed dramatically in the 2000s, falling below 20,000 by 2010. Still, the consequences of continued emigration by Ukraine’s elite remains a problem, according to the study, causing “Ukraine’s loss of the most educated, qualified, active and entrepreneurial population.” Migration and emigration contribute to a lack of medical, educational and engineering professionals in local labor markets, the study said.

The war and the country’s economic collapse over the past year have many young people thinking harder now about exchanging the uncertainty of their motherland for the uncertainties and opportunities of new lives in another country. Several experts said the impact of today’s crisis on emigration hasn’t yet shown up in statistics.

The conflict in Ukraine has displaced 1.2 million people within the country, and another 777,355 have sought asylum or other means of resettling in neighboring countries — mostly in Russia — according to recent figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Combined, that’s roughly 4.4 percent of the population in a country that had 45.4 million people in 2014, according to the Ukrainian government.

A growing interest in leaving has been a boon for MBA Strategy, a Kiev-based company that prepares people to take standardized tests like the General Management Admission Test (GMAT) or English proficiency exams that are needed to enter business schools abroad, its president, Dmitriy Bondar, said.

Though the company has offices in Russia and Kazakhstan, Mr. Bondar said the firm’s biggest growth lately has been in Ukraine.

Though he declined to give enrollment figures, he said that the number of Ukrainian students in their early 20s taking International English Language Testing System prep courses has increased by two to three times in less than a year.

“They want just to move,” Mr. Bondar said. “The situation has changed in the maybe last eight to 10 months, and maybe people decided it’s a good moment to change countries.”

Displaced and distressed

The Kharkiv region has swelled with the influx of 157,800 people displaced since the fighting began last year, according to UNCHR data. The front lines of the fighting are just four hours away by car in a city that had a prewar population of 1.4 million.

Earlier this month the Kharkiv passport office had about 60 people lining up outside to submit documents at midday. Hands rose to pass documents when the front door cracked open. Standing outside the office, Irina Sorokina, 23 said she and her boyfriend, Roman Zhuikov, 20, want to go to Poland.

“Just to find work there,” Ms. Sorokina said. Permanently, if possible, she added.

Ms. Sorokina has an engineering degree, and Mr. Zhuikov wants to work in information technology and computer programming, but both work as bartenders now and hope to find something better or even start their own business in the West.

“There’s a lot of work here, but it’s hard to start something that belongs to you,” Ms. Sorokina said. “It’s hard to make much money here, and you have to work really hard.”

At the V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, some students said they already have their eyes on the exits, either for work or for permanent relocation. Yuri Kulov, 25, and his wife Ann, 21, are considering teaching English in China after she graduates with a psychology degree. Mr. Kulov was also trained as a psychologist but found it didn’t pay.

“We’re thinking the better future will be in another country,” he said.

“Our situation has become worse and worse,” Mrs. Kulov said of Ukraine. “This situation will be over in 10 years, because maybe the faces in government will change, but it needs more time to change.”

Ukraine’s economic outlook is grim. Real GDP is expected to contract by 6 percent this year, following a 7.5 percent fall last year and zero growth in 2013, Moody’s Investors Service said in a report last month.

“The scale and timing of any recovery after 2015 will be heavily dependent upon whether the military conflict is resolved and the extent to which Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored,” Moody’s said.

In separatist-controlled Donetsk, where the booms of shelling echoed through the city center on a recent night this month despite a cease-fire, economic activity limps along amid shuttered shops and businesses.

Alexandra Korobkova, 21, a finance student, walked out of a Donetsk employment office without finding work.

“I am not likely to find a job [related] to my degree,” Ms. Korobkova said.

“I would like to move to Canada — the climate is almost the same as Ukraine,” she added, explaining she’s already looking for jobs there. “I have always dreamed of leaving here, but after the beginning of the conflict, I started thinking more about it.”

Some say that because so many are leaving, opportunities are opening up in the country.

At a vegetable and fruit stand in the market in Gorlovka, another separatist-held city in the east, Anton Bobrov, 28, said he had been a lawyer working in the Ukrainian justice ministry when the war started.

“It was closed, and I didn’t want to go to [Ukrainian-controlled territory],” Mr. Bobrov said, adding that there are many openings for lawyers in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” because so many people fled.

Still, it isn’t easy to leave, he added.

“I had a dream to go to America — everybody wanted to move to America when they’re young,” Mr. Bobrov said. “I don’t [speak] English or [have] money to go, and I don’t have anybody to go to. And what’s more, I have a small child, and now it’s getting difficult [to] move, and my wife doesn’t want to.”

In Kiev, last year’s Maidan revolution ushered in an era of conflict and uncertainty, with the prospect of a new pro-Western government reaching out to Europe and the U.S. balanced by protests and division in the Russia-oriented East.

Smoking cigarettes across the street from the Taras Shevchenko National University, a grand red neoclassical building in the heart of the capital, some social science students said they had thoughts about leaving.

“Many people want to leave because there’s no future in this country,” said Anastasiia Doroshenko, 21.

But Mykyta Biliaiev, 22, said President Petro Poroshenko’s administration was making new pathways for the younger generation to work in government that hadn’t existed before. Still, life after graduation is hard to contemplate while the war in the east grinds on.

“Maybe after we finish, we will go into the army,” Mr. Biliaiev said. He added, “It’s difficult to dream of the future, because first we need peace.”

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