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Families struggle as breadwinners head West

A seismic population shift is remaking Europe’s demographic map forever, as hundreds of thousands of workers from former Soviet bloc countries take advantage of the open-bordered EU to search for better-paying jobs and a brighter future.'s Dan Strieff reports from Latvia.

KRASLAVA, Latvia — The name of this hardscrabble Soviet-era village in the southeastern Latgale region derives from the archaic local word for “beautiful,” although the allure is lost on most of the residents.

Instead, the beauty is the ability to flee West since Latvia joined the European Union in 2004, helping to reshape the EU’s demographics as hundreds of thousands of workers from former Soviet bloc countries migrated to more economically fertile Western Europe.

The price has been divided families, willing to endure the short-term pain in the hopes of a better life.

“If we will stay in Latvia they will not see anything beyond their playground,” said Olga Galickaya, referring to her two toddlers, Yelena and Viktor.

The family lives in one of the bleak Khrushchev-era apartment blocks known as “khrushchovki” that litter cities across the former Soviet Union. It's a step up from their previous home, a desolate cabin in the woods.

These days, her husband Jevgenijs works in construction in a British village and sends home around $1,350 a month – nearly six times what he could earn in this corner of Latvia, the most deprived part of one of the poorest countries in the European Union.

“Yes, it is hard that my husband is away, but sometimes one has to sacrifice something,” Olga said during a recent visit as the children scampered around the apartment.

“But I don't feel lonely, because we talk with my husband every evening via (the Internet telephone video service) Skype,” said Olga, whose status as a Latvian-born ethnic Russian sometimes causes further complications.

“When the children hear his voice they shout, ‘Papa, papa!’, ask him about things, tell him what they did today, how they went for a walk and so on,” she said.

Fueling the boom
The Galickis family is not alone.

Workers like Jevgenijs (pronounced yev-JEN-iss) Galickis can earn several times their countries’ minimum wage if they work in Britain, Germany or Ireland.

At least 100,000 people out of a population of 2.2 million are believed to have moved to Western Europe since 2004. Many more people have moved West from larger ex-bloc countries such as Poland and Hungary.

Britain was the only longtime EU member to extend an open invitation to Eastern European workers. U.K. government statistics show that around 600,000 Eastern Europeans have arrived in the past three years – far higher than the government’s pre-2004 estimate of 15,000 new arrivals per year. (Ireland, though much smaller, has absorbed at least 150,000 Eastern Europeans since 2004.)

Studies show the influx of highly motivated economic migrants will increase the GDP in countries such as Britain and Ireland.

But the social and political impact is more complicated. Already concerned about voter backlash, Britain and others in the 27-country bloc slapped more stringent immigration regulations on the EU’s newest members Bulgaria and Romania, which joined this year.

The sudden, large-scale emigration has left its mark on those countries left behind.

“What we have seen is a real shift in labor shortages from urban to rural. The impact is being felt most deeply in the rural areas because there are less employment opportunities there than in the urban areas,” said Liz Collette, an analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center.

‘It’s a huge loss’
If Latvia’s current trends of high emigration and falling birthrate continue, the population will fall to 1.2 million by 2050 – about the size of San Antonio. Other Eastern European countries face similar crises.

“It’s really, really a problem, and no one can really calculate how much have left because there are no statistical means to do it,” Nils Ushakovs, a member of the Latvian parliament told during an interview in his second-story office near the parliament building in the Latvian capital Riga. “I mean, it’s a huge loss.”

“Being part of the European Union and being able to participate in this migration process helps many, many people in Latvia to survive because, what choice do you have?” said Ushakovs, who heads a coalition that tries to being both Latvians and Russians together.

“Being part of this migration process is a good thing for these people in particular. In general for the country, it’s not really good,” Ushakovs said.

There are fears that the most talented and most energetic will undermine Latvia’s bid for economic self-sufficiency, less than 15 years after a traumatic separation from Russia.

“There are very dangerous signals about the possibilities about young generation in Latvia, about their feelings of living in Latvia,” said Andris Priekulis, headmaster of the 940-student Riga secondary school No. 3. “I hope that in my school, the 12th graders, only some will be going abroad,”

New generation, different attitude?
But not all the signs are troubling. With easier movement across borders, more Eastern Europeans are availing themselves of opportunities – education, employment, fun – available in the West and plan to take home what they have learned.

“I’ve always loved it there. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d like to go,” said Kristiana Melko, a 25-year-old from Riga who plans to return to Latvia after completing her Master’s in marketing in Britain.

“All they see is that there’s money in London, and no money in Latvia, and I think they need the encouragement to stay in Latvia, to know the truth about work abroad. When you consider the cost of living and everything else, it’s no better here than in Latvia,” she said.

In Riga, Andris Belcbergs, 18, was unconcerned about the country’s most explosive issue.

“I think [large-scale emigration] is not that bad because everyone who is going abroad eventually comes back or somehow takes the name Latvia into the world. It’s a bit of a commercial for Latvia,” he said.

Staying in touch
The village of Ermington, 10 miles from England’s southwest coast, is dominated by a cathedral whose crooked spire gives its name to the town’s only pub. The sleepy town, seemingly straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel, is laid out around a small square and surrounded by pastureland, stone walls and farmhouses. It sits a few miles from the moors of sprawling, rocky Dartmoor National Park.

It’s where Jevgenijs Galickis lives and works, where he spends part of every evening sitting on the single bed in his unadorned attic bedroom and speaking to his family via Skype. Thoughts of his wife and kids are rarely far from his mind.

“For me, it’s enough to know for what purpose I serve, for whom I’m doing it for,” said 26-year-old Jevgenijs, who is employed as a skilled construction worker restoring a 19th-century mansion.

His children initially did not understand why he left, but his daughter soon caught on.

“My kids ask, ‘Why is dad not around?’ And I can say, ‘Papa went to make some money.’ I can tell the truth,” he said.

Jevgenijs hopes to navigate the labyrinthine British and European Union residency laws to gain residency and eventually bring his family to Britain.

Asked how long he can continue this separation, Jevgenijs responds, “A person can get used to anything.”