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#17 - JRL 2006-141 - JRL Home
RIA Novosti
June 19, 2006
Russia Needs Urgent Measures as Population Dwindles

MOSCOW. (Andrei Kolesnikov, RIA Novosti political commentator) - Recent demographic trends in Russia have caused widespread public concern and have given rise to interminable discussions.

In fact, everything there is to say about depopulation has already been said, and there seems to be no way to change the opinions of any of the debaters.

The academic outlook of sociologists and demographers is to regard depopulation as a lasting trend, which Soviet experts forecast already back in the 1960s. Russia shares this with all developed countries. It is at the top of their problem list, alongside working age population shrinkage, which is just starting, and the aging of the population.

Politicians tend to have a different view of the problem. As they present it, "predatory reforms" of the 1990s caused a genocide of ethnic Russians, and an influx of nationals from former Soviet republics. All of this, they allege, has lead to rising unemployment rates, alcoholism and general degeneration of the Russian ethnos.

A recent Open Forum club session brought demographers, sociologists, statisticians and economists together. Although the experts used academic terminology, the implication of what they said was slanting toward the politicians' view.

Therefore we will focus here on a single feature of the process: the political outcome of depopulation and related trends.

Ethnic Russians will make up only 1% of the world population fifty years from now, warns Andrei Illarionov, a former presidential economic adviser. Encouraging families to have more children came as an initial, and largely spontaneous, government response to the falling birth rates. That was a natural approach to take, but, experts unanimously agree, it was doomed from the start. Token rises in maternity payments cannot reverse a social trend determined not so much by incomes as by lifestyle. Young couples do not want to have big families because they focus on education and career, and prefer to have leisure to taking the trouble raising children. Here, too, Russia shares a global trend. It would be a more far reaching policy to raise the standard of living for students, working age people and pensioners, thereby combating death rates, which are, in fact, a far worse problem than low birth rates, says Irina Zbarskaya, Federal Statistical Service population census board chief.

Here, we come to immigration, a promising way to replenish the workforce, whose scarcity will become the worst of all Russian resource shortages within a few years.

Russia's working age population will be steadily shrinking from 2007 on, and only immigrants can fill the gap. Already now, Russia needs 700,000 new immigrants a year. The problem is too great to admit only the educated and the qualified: what we need is a mass inflow, not limited to ethnic Russians from former USSR republics, for whom it is obviously easier to become assimilated as they speak the same language and share common beliefs. The majority of immigrants will have to be non-Russians. According to demographer Zhanna Zaionchkovskaya, ethnic Russians in the CIS can amount to about four million immigrants, a resource that will soon be exhausted. Moreover, we cannot be sure these people will choose to emigrate to their ancestral land.

So, Russia will have to put up with massive labor immigration. The workforce inflow is certain to concentrate in big cities, which offer the highest living standards. That will make cities even more overpopulated and multi-ethnic than now. The negative outcome is that the population density will become ever more uneven. A patchwork ethnic composition breeds another bad problem. It gives rise to ethnic ghettos, unless the host country cares to legalize immigrant employment and promote immigrant cultural adaptation. There is a danger that local residents will become intolerant in the cities and all over Russia. The situation breeds and institutionalizes radical nationalism, which penetrates Big Politics and takes firm root in the public mentality to dominate political debates. As a worst case scenario, Nazi views will spread throughout the country.

Prevention of Nazism and promotion of tolerance have crossed the boundaries of the human rights cause. If Russians fail to reach those goals, their sheer survival will be at stake in the economic, social and political spheres. Russia is on the threshold of a formidable crisis - the crisis of national identity. We share that problem, too, with the best-developed countries. Significantly, Samuel P. Huntington titled one of his latest books, "Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity." He analyzes the problem of new American self-identification in the context of globalization, and an increasing impact of Hispanic and Chinese immigrants. "America becomes the world. The world becomes America. America remains America," the author concludes.

A former empire, this country has seen those trends, too, and it has every right to repeat: "Russia becomes the world. The world becomes Russia. Russia remains Russia." This is an extremely involved situation, in which it is hard to find the correct frame of reference.

There is another aspect to the problem. Purely social, it has a political tinge to it. Depopulation and the growing share of senior citizens in the community will critically increase taxpayers' burden in order to support pensioners, even if the immigrant workforce adapts as soon and as profoundly as possible. The present-day egalitarian distribution pension system will be doomed. Taxes will probably skyrocket to keep the avalanche in check. All that will breed public discontent, another big political problem. It seems there is only one way out of the situation: to step up the pension reform and shift to accumulative privately invested pensions as the basis of pension payments.

Russia will not be able to resolve political problems caused by the demographic crisis unless it displays political determination to tackle those problems, and takes a proactive approach to reforming immigration policies, labor relations and the pension system.