- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2001

More than three decades ago Andrei Amalrik published a small book with the intriguing title, "Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?" The young Soviet dissident, who died in 1980 at the age of 40, predicted a protracted and devastating war between the Soviet Union and China, one which would lead to the demise of the Soviet Union. Few foresaw the fall of the Kremlin as the result of a Cold War.

Today the title of such a book could well be: "Will Russia Survive Until 2084?" This time the country's potential demise would not be the result of war, hot or cold. Rather it would be the result of a population decline of such magnitude that President Vladimir Putin said a few months ago that, if it continues, "the very survival of the nation will be endangered." In his first annual presidential address last July, Mr. Putin listed the "most acute problems" facing Russia. Of the 16 problems on the list, his No. 1 problem was the uninterrupted decline of Russia's population.

I have been studying a 5,000-word article in the Wilson Quarterly by Murray Feshbach, the acknowledged leading U.S. expert in Russian demography, who is presently a senior scholar at the Wilson Center. His article, titled, "Russia's Population Meltdown," raises the most serious questions about Russia's ability to surmount its interminable economic crisis and whether Russia can create the political institutions necessary to reverse its depopulation.

Mr. Feshbach's findings about what he calls "a looming demographic catastrophe" go something like this:

• Russia's population decline "raises the twin prospects of political disintegration and subsequent consolidation under an authoritarian leader hostile to Western interests." In other words an end to any hopes for a democratized Russia.

• Russians are dying at significantly faster than they are being born. Russian women are bearing little more than half the number of babies needed to sustain the population at current levels.

• The incidence of HIV/AIDS, syphilis, tuberculosis, hepatitis C and other infectious diseases is soaring.

• The Russian health care system is "staggering": 40 percent of the nation's hospitals and clinics lack hot water or sewage disposal.

• Only about 25 percent of Russian babies are born healthy. Only 5 percent to 10 percent of Russian children are healthy.

• By 2050, Russia's population will shrink by one-third, i.e. from 145 million to 100 million, "a blow that even a stable, prosperous country would have difficulty sustaining," to quote Mr. Feshbach.

• An estimated two-thirds of all pregnancies now end in abortions.

• An estimated 20 million Russians, or more than one-seventh of the population, are alcoholics.

These are a but a few of the appalling revelations in the Feshbach article. I have omitted his findings, bolstered by reports of official Russian organizations, which deal with the polluted environment, rivers, lakes and farmland, a phenomenon which has produced an extraordinary disclosure only 25 percent to 50 percent of Russia's fresh water is potable. Mr. Feshbach estimates it would take 20 years and $400 billion to clean up the water supply, $6 billion to clean up the chemical weapons storage sites, hundreds of billions to clean up the nuclear waste.

"And yet despite how daunting the task may seem, and how long the odds of success," Mr. Feshbach concludes, "we cannot simply ignore the ruin of Russia. The United States and other nations of the world have a profound interest in helping to avert an economic and demographic Chernobyl that would give a fearful new meaning to the word meltdown."

In the meantime, Russia's war in Chechnya goes right on, Russian fighters buzz an American aircraft carrier in the Pacific, President Putin has a love-fest with Fidel Castro, a rule of law has yet to materialize, Iran gets strategic weapons submarines, helicopters, battleships, modern tanks from Russia, tolerance of dissent diminishes, corruption is still endemic.[

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