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Russia Profile
April 28, 2009
Russians: an Endangered Species
The Government’s Much Vaunted Efforts to Halt Depopulation Have Hardly Made a Dent in the Problem
By Sergei Balashov

Despite all efforts Russia took to boost fertility rates and combat depopulation, the latest UN demographic report confirms that they have fallen well short of the mark. As the collapse of Russia’s population accelerates, the country is bound to face overwhelming social and economic problems. But there are few if any obvious answers, prompting some policymakers to reach for ever more desperate solutions.

The United Nations presented its report on human resources development in Russia last Friday, offering gloomy forecasts for Russia’s population, which the report claimed would decline by some 26 million to 116 million by 2050. The UN report has also warned that the rapid depopulation will bring dire economic consequences.

Russia has lost more than 12 million people since depopulation commenced in 1992. This trend currently shows no signs of slowing down, and Russia will continue to lose people­the only question is: at what pace? An expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences Anatoly Vishnevsky painted an even gloomier picture than that presented in the report, predicting a population of 98 million for Russia in 2050.

What is worse is that the problem affects Russia's least populated and underdeveloped territories, particularly regions in the Far East and Siberia. Accounting for 36 percent of Russia’s territory, the Far East is home to just 6.8 million residents. The Russian Committee for Statistics predicts that both Siberia and the Far East will each lose 11 percent of population by 2025, while the number of central Russian inhabitants will only go down by three percent.

Even more troubling is that the number of able-bodied adults is declining faster than any other demographic category. This group is expected to absorb the bulk of the losses, declining by 14 million by 2025. According to the RBC daily, in 16 years every 1,000 employed Russians are going to be providing for some 800 dependents.

Due to the recent economic growth, these negative trends seemed to be slowly reversing over the past few years. Birth rates have modestly risen thanks to increased stability, and the country became more appealing to foreign workers, who started coming in much larger numbers. Migration was seen as a possible solution to Russia’s demographic problem, complimenting the government’s increased efforts to boost birth rates and improve healthcare to fight high mortality. In 2007, there were over 1.7 million foreign workers in the country, a significant increase from just a little over one million in 2006.

But then the financial crisis kicked in, greatly affecting the flow of labor into the country. The Federal Migration Service has already stated that labor migration declined by 27 percent in the first quarter of this year. But despite the fact that it helped bring almost six million people to the country, some experts believe that the role of migrants in combating depopulation is dubious. “There are two takes on migration: the first notion is that migrants will ruin the country. Everyone is afraid that Russia will get taken over by the Chinese, but that’s not going to happen. What is going to happen is that the only people to come here will be Caucasians and Middle Asians. But they will come and go; they will not assimilate simply because everything is too foreign for them over here. The second notion is that migrants will save us, but that’s also not true. State programs to encourage Russians living outside of the country to move back have failed miserably and very few people are returning. You get maybe 10,000 per year via these programs,” said Sergei Ermakov, the head of the demographic programs department at the Institute for Demography, Migration and Regional Development.

However, migration was not seen as the only way out of the demographic quagmire. Back in 2006 the government introduced benefits for large families. Starting in 2007, every woman bearing a second or any consecutive child could get maternity payments, a sum that has been gradually growing every year to over $11,000 at its peak in mid-2008. However, this money came with a few strings attached. It could only be spent on the child's education, paying off a mortgage or the mother's pension. The ruling United Russia party has been particularly proud of this initiative, crediting then-President Vladimir Putin with inventing this effective means of boosting fertility rates.

However, the UN experts who prepared the report beg to differ, claiming that only one percent of women who recently had children ascribed their decision to the aforementioned financial benefits. And this can be easily explained. The problem of educational expenses does not come up until the child turns 16 or 17, the age at which Russians usually graduate from high school and head to higher educational institutions. Living conditions could also hardly be improved with this money, as even in post-crisis Moscow real estate costs over $4,000 per square meter, not to mention that raging inflation has already eaten up a good portion of the maternity bonus. Today, this sum amounts to less than $9,000.

A woman can also only claim the money for one child, no matter how many she has after bearing the first one. Even if this maternity capital worked, it still wouldn't be enough to recompense for the population losses. “Having two children won’t do it. They have to introduce the same benefits for the third, fourth, and so on. Also don’t forget that before you can send your kid to a university, you have to somehow raise them for 16 or 17 years. Yet neither the mother nor the child can spend the money they receive on healthcare,” said Ermakov.

EU countries spend about 2.2 to 2.4 percent of the GDP to support large families, while in Russia state aid amounts to roughly one percent.

The one factor that should not be ignored is that the people’s mentality is also changing. Education and careers are the priorities now, and starting a family is often on the backburner, for women as much as for men. Various proposals have been championed to combat people's unwillingness to have more children. Alexander Chuev, a State Duma deputy from the Just Russia party, has been rooting for a reinstitution of the Soviet small-family tax, a six percent income tax imposed on childless single men and married women, as well as couples that did not have children after one year of marriage. “The public should show more love for children, families with two or more children should get the most favorable treatment in this country. The government should adopt this attitude and act accordingly. The goal here is to change this mindset,” said Evgeny Yuriev, the president of the ATON Capital Group and an expert on Russia’s demographics.