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Russia's population implosion

Foreign Report
Copyright Jane's Information Group Limited 2001
FAR AWAY from the public gaze, Russia's President Vladimir Putin has been pondering one fundamental problem for his country: the disappearance of Russia's population. A plan, grandly entitled 'Conception of Demographic Policy of Russia for the Period to 2015', has been completed by the Russian government in order to halt the slide in the number of Russians. The report will land on President Putin's desk in the next few days. Putin will sign the plan by the end of 2001, and then it will become a 'handbook for action' for Russia's executive authorities. FOREIGN REPORT has been given access to the document. It does not make comfortable reading for a Russian political leader. Let's start with an uncomfortable fact. In 2000, the mortality rate in Russia exceeded the birth rate by approximately 958,000 persons. Thus, every hour, the population of Russia declined by about 109 people. The report submitted to Putin claims that "Russia has minimum time left to overcome the demographic disaster". Some optimists insist that the processes of decline in the birth rate which are being seen in Russia almost fully correspond to the general European tendencies, and therefore, supposedly, the situation is not serious. But it is serious. There is a 'discrepancy'.

The report points out that, peculiar to Russia, the decline in the birth rate is accompanied by a steady
rise in the mortality rate, something which is not observed in Western countries.

The birth rate is a strategic matter

Furthermore, the report points out that Russia has a particular strategic problem with this population
reduction: given the country's vast territorial expanse, and the fact that large tracts of land are already under-populated, a further reduction is more dangerous than in many other countries. If the trend
continues, there may eventually be too few Russians left to preserve their current territory. The report
reminds Putin that Russia borders China, where the demographic situation has a directly opposite
character, and where the shortage of territory is most acutely felt.

The report then quotes the theories of the great Russian scientist Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev who,
more than a century ago, reckoned that, in order for the Russian Empire to be able to retain and develop
its existing territory, its population must comprise no less than 500m people: the current population of
the Russian Federation is less than a third of that figure.

Moscow centre is expanding

The report also warns President Putin that the central regions of Russia are dying out the fastest. In
Moscow, however, the population is not declining. This is not because of a higher birth rate in the capital, but is a result of high migration from other parts of Russia, and from the former Soviet Union.

Moscow apart, the story is uniform: in the Vologda, Novgorod, Pskov, Nizhniy Novgorod, Penza and Samara regions, as well as in the city of St. Petersburg, the number of deaths exceeds the number of births by two, and sometimes even by three, times. Natural population growth in Russia is recorded only in 15 regions, and among them are the restless and politically unreliable North Caucasus republics (primarily Dagestan and Ingushetiya), as well as Kalmykiya.

It is primarily Russian men who are dying young: the level of male mortality surpasses the mortality of
women by four times.

According to the predictions of demographers in the report, by 2050 Russia will be inhabited by fewer than 115m people (compared with 147m now). Moreover, the largest segment of the population will be old women. Thus, the decline in the numbers of citizens living in Russia is only half the problem; the rapid changes in the age structure of the population is critical. Already in 1998, for the first time in Russia's history, the number of people of retirement age surpassed the number of children and youths; according to the latest available data, there are now one million more persons of retirement age than there are children.

The implications for Russia's pension payment system are horrific. And this is before the figure for
migration is included; every year since the fall of communism approximately 100,000 people left Russia,
not including the sizeable Jewish migration to Israel.

The study also points out the military difficulties of these demographic developments: by 2016, the number of the male population 17-19 years of age will decline in Russia from 3.5m people to 2m people, and the pool of those willing to be conscripted into the military will be reduced.

How to avoid extinction

Russian demographers have developed a programme to save the nation from extinction. The aim: to lengthen lives. How? They propose a campaign against alcoholism, particularly of vodka. More public health centres and programmes are needed. Mobile medical teams should be revived.

Employers should be made responsible for the health of their workers. A telephone hotline system will be set up for improving the mental health of citizens, and for reducing the number of suicides. The government also proposes to give financial incentives to young families. Very soon, subsidies to new mothers will be increased, and sizable loans will be given out for the purchase of housing.

Our prediction: It will be possible to stop the depletion of the population in Russia no sooner than
in 2050, even if the measures contained in the current plan are successfully implemented. 

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