#21 - JRL 2009-190 - JRL Home

International Relations and Security Network (ISN)
14 October 2009
Russia: Ominous Demographics
By Ben Judah in Moscow for ISN Security Watch
Ben Judah is a senior correspondent for ISN Security Watch, currently reporting from Russia and the Caucasus. His work has also featured in the Economist Online, the New Republic Online and in Standpoint Magazine.

In 2010-2011, Russia will not have enough conscripts to continue to man its army at current levels, and the strategic and resource-rich Siberian expanses are facing depopulation. How the Kremlin manages this coming crunch will determine whether or not Russia has the human capacities to remain a great power, Ben Judah writes for ISN Security Watch.

Birth rates and projected total populations have been falling across the developed world, but the Russian population has been falling since the early 1990s.

A UN report recently published its verdict on Russia’s demographic situation. In 1950, what is now the Russian Federation had the fourth largest population in the world, but by 2007, it ranked 9th globally, behind Bangladesh and Nigeria. By 2050, the UN estimates, the Russian population will have fallen behind that of Vietnam.

The Russian population has fallen by 6.6 million since 1993, despite a large influx of immigrants that has made Russia the second-most popular destination for labor migrants in the world after the US. The UN estimates the country could lose a further 11 million people by 2025. Such vast losses are only comparable to wartime.

These rates have ominous implications for security and have been frightening the Russian elite. Both Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have made repeated calls to increase the birth rate over the past few years.

Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-linked lawmaker and member of United Russia, told ISN Security Watch how the establishment was interpreting this population crunch.

“There is a great fear that a demographically weakened Russia will no longer be able to control the resource-rich and strategically essential expanses of Siberia if they are to become depopulated. With over a billion Chinese sitting on the other side of the border, individually hungry for land and collectively in dire need of resources, this is an acute concern for us,” Markov argues.

His voice is not alone. The Russian popular press is regularly gripped by the ‘Yellow Peril,’ and only recently, a media-frenzy erupted in the Far East over rumors that Vladivostok planned to lease half the city to China for 75 years.

Bring on the babies

Russia has interpreted the crisis by trying to raise its birth rate. The Kremlin has invested heavily in advertising campaigns to promote family life, with placards in the Moscow Metro eulogizing children as ‘masterpieces of nature.’

Financial benefits are offered to those who have a second child as well as benefits for housing and education. Markov argues this is not enough and that United Russia, the dominant political party created as a vehicle for Putin’s ambitions, is set to continue this trend.

“There will be more propaganda. We need to improve the moral atmosphere in the country and will do this by attacking consumer values and promoting distinct traditional ones. We will construct more pre-schools, fight crime [...] and pollution, while continuing our current efforts. Russia needs to be family friendly. In the Far East, however, there is nothing we can do to stop Chinese immigration [...].”

There are signs that the Kremlin’s attempts to raise the birth rate are working. August was the first month in which births outnumbered deaths in Russia for over a decade, and the abortion rate has continued to decline. Experts, however, were guarded on such developments, explaining how demographic trends are notoriously hard to predict and extremely volatile.

Siberian development expert Vladislav Inozomtsev argues that the situation is not as simple as Markov suggests. He argues that Soviet-era settlements are a drain on the Russian economy and that the government would do better to treat the expanses of Siberia and the Far East as a resource frontier like Canada does its far north. He takes a different stance on Chinese migration.

“In fact, the number of Chinese migrants has decreased significantly as life is now better in China that in these poor parts of Russia,” he tells ISN Security Watch. “The real issue is that China is buying up economic assets and Moscow is providing no alternative. Russians are now crossing into China as traders, with the problem of development the region faces being not one of demographics but endemic corruption [...].”

Gender specifics

Where the future of Siberia and arguments over the birth rate remain largely theoretical, the first crunch point Russia will face as it adapts to a smaller population will hit in 2010-2011. There will not be enough young men to staff its conscript army to the levels deemed necessary by the Russian General Staff.

Alexander Golts, a military expert who has been observing the Russian army since Soviet times, argues that demographics will be the establishment’s moment of truth.

“Our leadership will have to decide what it wants to destroy in 2010-2011, either the current Russian education system that allows widespread exemptions or the current system of military recruitment,” he tells ISN Security Watch.

However, Golts does not believe the conscription problem need be interpreted as a crisis. The rapid reaction forces, improvements in security technology and information technology allowed the military to do without their current demands for a 1 million-strong army. “In fact, they only need between 700,000 to 800,000 to control the borders of the country. They have a mentality stuck in the 1930s.”

Life in a bottle

Public health is also another aspect – and by far the most extreme – of Russia’s demographic crisis. Male life expectancy in Russia is below 60 years and inferior to that of, for instance, Pakistan. A recent report by the medical journal Lancet found that over half of all deaths of Russians aged between 15 and 54 since the 1991 Soviet collapse were caused by alcohol.

Oleg Zykov founded Alcoholics Anonymous in Russia. He argues that Russia may in fact have reached a turning-point.

“The demographic crisis is not about the birth rate (it is the same as that in Europe) but about the death rate and the state of public health. The recent proposals by President Medvedev to begin to cut access to alcohol by at-risk groups show a new stage may have been reached that will allow Russians to finally have a normal relationship to alcohol.”

Medvedev recently brought in the first call for anti-alcohol measures since Gorbachev.

Zykov remains despondent about their chances of radically improving male life expectancy.

“The demographic crisis is the result of the Soviet Union and the social consequences of its collapse. Russians are a post-totalitarian society who view their lives as dependent on the state and a strong hand. Only when Russia becomes more democratic will Russians begin to take more responsibility for themselves and their health.”

From 2010 onward, the labor force will start shrinking by over 1 million a year. The UN has urged Russia to adapt by extending male life expectancy and bringing in more immigrants. The issue is whether or not the Kremlin can afford to attack vodka sales, from which it draws large amounts of tax revenue, and if the Russian population can stomach more immigration from Ukraine and Central Asia.

The opposition leader Vladimir Milov, from the movement Solidarity, argues that Russia’s demographic crisis can only be solved by improved governance.

“We take a very strict line toward the Kremlin on this issue as they had such great chances to solve it and did not. The situation is improving in many ways – but we need dramatic increases in health care provision, improved road-safety, anti-narcotic and alcohol campaigns but above all more responsive state procedures. A closed political system makes this so much harder to achieve.”

The Kremlin’s acknowledgment of the problem by calling for anti-alcohol measures and the August increase in the birth rate are green shoots in Russia’s demographic crisis, but the demographic forecast is still rather gloomy.

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