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Russian Politicians, Demographers Warn Of Population Crisis
By Claire Bigg
Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

Moscow, 28 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Experts have long warned that political instability, low living standards, and poor health are taking their toll on Russia's population, but politicians have begun to raise the alarm as well.

Geographically, Russia is the largest country in the world, with land stretching from Europe to the Pacific Coast. The Russian population, however, is shrinking at a dramatic rate.

Vladimir Yakovlev, Russia's regional development minister, said recently that the country's population has fallen by 1.7 million over the past two years.

Russia now has about 145 million inhabitants. But if the population continues to decline at the current rate, Yakovlev warned, Russia will have one-third fewer people within 50 years.

Nikita Mkrtchian, a demography expert at the Economic Forecasting Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said Russia's population decline is gaining frightening pace. This, he said, could have dire consequences on the economy.

"According to our calculations, without a migration inflow to Russia, around 2015 the working population will fall by around 1.5 million people a year," Mkrtchian said. "This is a very important figure and it will become a barrier to economic growth."

Russia has an average birthrate of 1.3 children for every woman, a figure far too small to maintain the population at its current level.

Russia also has one of the lowest life expectancies and one of the highest infant-mortality rates of the world's industrialized countries. On average, Russian men die at the age of 60 while Russian women live to 73.

The figures are far lower than those, for example, in France, where men can expect to live 75 years and women 82.

A dip in the workforce makes an economic crisis almost inevitable. On top of that, Yakovlev also estimated that three-quarters of the 20 million men currently able to work are either alcoholics, unemployed, in the army, or in prison.

He added that up to 60 percent of Russians are pensioners, children, or disabled people, few of whom can earn their own living.

Mkrtchian said that Yakovlev's figures are slightly exaggerated. But his institute's forecasts are hardly more reassuring. According to its calculations, in 20 years only one person in five in Russia will be working.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also highlighted Russia's dire demographic situation in his state-of-the-nation address on 25 April.

Putin lamented the fact that some 40,000 people, mostly economically active young men, die of alcoholic poisoning every year.

President Putin also said such a low life expectancy in Russia is unacceptable, and called for swift measures to improve the health of Russians.

"We cannot accept the fact that Russian women live almost 10 years, and Russian men almost 16 years, less than people in Western Europe," Putin said. "Moreover, many of the current causes of mortality can not only be removed, but [can be] removed at a small expense. I am convinced that our first task is to make health care accessible and high-quality, and to revive disease prevention as a tradition of Russian medicine."

Russian demographers welcomed the comments, saying authorities have so far paid scant attention to the problem.

Experts, however, argue that even increasing the birth rate and improving people's health will not prevent the looming economic crisis.

The large generation of baby boomers -- people born after World War II -- will go into retirement in about 10 years, creating a sudden gap in the country's workforce.

Most demographers see migration as the only way for Russia to avoid a demographic and economic catastrophe.

Letting in more migrants will enable Russia to boost its work force. It will also prevent further depopulation of its Asian territories.

Russians living in Siberia and the Far East are already flowing to the capital in search of work. As a result, Mkrtchian said, massive regions are rapidly emptying while Moscow is becoming increasingly congested.

"Without a migration inflow, almost all of the population living in the Asian part of Russia will drop at a very fast rate and Siberia will start already at the Volga," Mkrtchian said. "In other words, almost all the regions east of the Volga will yield population chiefly to Moscow and to its surrounding region."

The population of Russia has dwindled many times throughout its history. Just in the last century, it was decimated by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the ensuing civil war and famines in 1932 and 1933. Tens of millions more Russians then died in World War II and Stalin-era purges.