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In Russia: Ambitions vs. Demography

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Jeffrey Kibler

If you want a year of prosperity, grow grain.
If you want a decade of prosperity, grow trees.
If you want a century of prosperity, grow people.
Chinese proverb

Two years ago, during my last visit to a provincial high school in Russia, I witnessed firsthand the devastating scope of a stark demographic crisis in a country that was once known as a great power. It came as no surprise to see a much smaller class of graduates in the school than in previous generations. The fact is that in 1992 pregnancy termination procedures outnumbered live births by well over 2 to 1, as fertility rates slumped, and since then deaths have exceeded births.

This is not news to anyone in Russia. In fact, this is not breaking news for many in more developed parts of the world either. Declining population trends can be seen in most post-communist societies and even in a number of developed countries in Western Europe. However, it was particularly disheartening to learn that the health of the youth at the school was much poorer than it used to be and that most of the extracurricular activities had to cease due to insufficient enrollment. Members of the local community, including the school principal, teachers and parents, seemed to be increasingly aware of the impact that years of socioeconomic turmoil following the breakup of the Soviet Union have had on their society.

It is much more difficult for these Russians to admit that what they are witnessing today is only the beginning of a greater problem. With this demographic collapse of the state, a humanitarian crisis will likely arise, with even larger consequences for years to come.

Students of Russian affairs, international analysts and the media have carefully followed the political, economic and military developments in the Eurasian heartland. More recently, with even greater frequency, they have started to discuss Russia’s great power ambitions, which are fueled by oil and gas revenues. Despite this growing awareness, however, few debates touch upon the basic prerequisites for attainment of Russia’s economic and geopolitical goals: population and human capital. As a country with one of the lowest population densities in the world—and one that has been progressively losing its human capital during the last two decades—Russia and its potential economic power, military might and geopolitical influence in the world need to be reinvestigated. Thus far, history has hardly ever witnessed a society that has achieved sustainable material growth in an environment of long-term population decline.

Both quantitative and qualitative data can help deepen our understanding of the limits of Russia’s human capacity to carry out her highly ambitious projects, such as to quadruple gross domestic product in the next couple of decades, become the fifth-largest economy by 2020 and regain a geopolitical influence. Over the last two decades, when Russia entered this state of depopulation, birthrates have sharply declined while death rates have skyrocketed. This has happened in the overall context of an aging, generally unhealthy population with an unbalanced gender ratio. Beyond that, contradictory views on and approaches to migration have yet to match the goals of the demographic development in a multinational country such as Russia.

A Demographic Crisis

Analyses of recent birth, death and migration trends indicate that Russia is in the grip of a demographic crisis. Total births in the country dropped by 40 percent between 1992 and 2007. The magnitude of premature mortality in the post-Soviet era to date, according to historical observations, is comparable with the human losses during World War I. All this has resulted in a negative natural increase of 12.4 million people. It is only because of positive migration that this huge population decline was partially offset and Russia ended up recording a loss of about 7 million people. For the remaining population, the available data are grim. Russia was recently ranked 115 out of 171 covered areas in the developing world in overall life expectancy. 

Declining population trends can be traced in many of the developing and developed countries. What is unique about Russia is the amplitude of change and the enduring character of the unfortunate demographic tendencies. A drastic fall in fertility rates from 2.2 in the early 1980s to 1.17 in 1997 looks very sharp in comparison with the average of 2.0 that Russia maintained in the post-World War II Soviet era. Within the continental European context, despite all those countries’ problematic internal patterns, Russia could still be considered a high-fertility society in the late 1980s, but by 2005, it had become a relatively low-fertility society with fewer welfare benefits.

Figures for premature deaths in Russia are astonishingly high relative to the European context as well. Seventy-five percent of all deaths in Russia occur due to diseases caused by high cholesterol, blood pressure and tobacco consumption. Numbers for confirmed diagnoses of HIV/AIDS and alcoholism are among the highest in the world. These factors contribute not only to quantitative but also qualitative loss because of the increasing share of unhealthy people. Overall, other things being equal, Russia could have maintained its population if it had been able to keep its net reproduction rate, an index of intergenerational population change, at 1.01, the level of 1987. However, by 1999, the net reproduction rate fell to 0.55, indicating a stark 45 percent population loss between the two generations.

The most evident economic consequences of such tendencies deal with the absolute value of the population change and indicate that the size of the labor force is going to shrink in the next couple of decades. This will further decrease the competitiveness of Russia. The scale of the potential geopolitical consequences of this negative population growth may vary depending on multiple factors, such as ethnic composition and population density.

Regions dominated by ethnic -Russians historically were subject to negative natural increases, while the regions originally established for indigenous or ethnic non-Russian minorities almost exclusively showed a natural increase. Today, in autonomous non-Russian ethnic regions, birthrates are higher and death rates are lower than the median values for Russia as a whole, while in ethnic Russian regions, the situation is the opposite. The Central Federal District, the nucleus of the ethnic Russian population, has the lowest birthrates among Russian regions and relatively high death rates.

In such an ethnically diverse society as Russia, there is the possibility that the state will face new challenges from particular groups who may begin to desire independence, despite the long tradition of “great friendship” among the peoples. It is also possible that Russia will need to confront one of its biggest domestic hurdles in the form of its increasing Muslim population. The outcome of these potential challenges for Russia will depend on the ability of Russians and indigenous minorities to appreciate the long history of coexistence of different cultures and faiths.

Migration: Threat or Solution?

As for the population distribution and density, the emerging situation poses another geopolitical concern. The demographic vacuum in the Far East and Siberia may create real anxiety in some that those areas will be populated by immigrants from abroad, especially from neighboring China. New strategies for regional development seem to be necessary in order to attract the Russian population to the Far East and thereby prevent empty spaces from being populated exclusively by foreigners. This is especially pressing when the central state runs deficits in military conscripts to maintain an army of the desired size. Russia’s territorial immensity demands a relatively large military, but the army’s reduced numbers make this impracticable. 

On the other hand, migration still serves as an important tool for mediating population decline. It has great potential for improving the individual well-being of Russians and fostering economic development. The loss resulting from negative natural increase was partially offset due to major cross-border population movements immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when there was an influx of immigrant laborers from Central Asia. Immigration figures for Russia remain high, ranking as one of the highest in the world; however, the nature of this migration raises another set of questions.

There are major concerns related to the profile of immigrants and the ethnic composition of the country as a whole. The migration potential of ethnic Russians from post-Soviet states has been almost completely exhausted. Increasingly immigrants—who come mainly from Commonwealth of Independent States countries, China and Turkey—predominantly work in low-skilled industries and confront opposition in metropolitan areas. Skilled labor from the West still is unwilling to come to Russia.

The Next Generation

It is now almost two decades since Russia entered its state of depopulation. The decline began in the early 1990s when the prolonged impact of its shock therapy and the crisis of 1998 hit Russian business and industry. This led to the rise of unemployment, a decline in living standards, damage to the social infrastructure and the deterioration of public health.

In an attempt to fight increasing death rates and low fertility, improve public health and effectively manage migration, the Russian government in 2006, led by Vladimir Putin, initiated a “demographic conception of 2025.” According to the conception, a strong base for future demographic dynamics should be created within the next 10 to 15 years that would reflect the geopolitical and socioeconomic ambitions of the state. Stabilization and a subsequent growth in population are regarded as the basic conditions for strengthening the security of the state, ensuring its territorial integrity and the use of natural resources for its national interests. Without these factors, it will be impossible to increase population levels radically and improve the quality of life in Russia.

The realization of these commitments depends on the capabilities of the government to provide enough financial resources throughout the entire recovery period. It will need to do so despite any financial crises, such as the one we are currently witnessing, which would threaten to slow down or even reverse the positive impacts of these new demographic policies.

A Chinese proverb simply states, “One generation plants the trees; another gets the shade.” It is not the fault of the first generation of children born into post-Soviet Russia that they have inherited a state in decline. However, it is now their responsibility to ensure some kind of shade for future generations. They are tasked with figuring out how Russia can remain a competitive state, able to attract skilled labor from abroad and to prevent her own citizens from migrating overseas. Russia must begin providing better opportunities at home and meet the challenge of diversification in industry, as well as ensure the safety of its nuclear arsenal. These are pressing questions tied in various ways to the country’s demographic concerns.

Alas, sometimes it takes far too long to realize that demography remains a complex phenomenon that cannot be directed purely by government intervention—but also can no longer be ignored by those states desperately in need of planting new trees.