- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Czar Nicholas I is among those credited with having coined the epithet, “Sick Man of Europe” to describe the Ottoman Empire of the mid-19th century.

In post World War I, the epithet was linked specifically to a defeated Turkey minus its empire. Since then, it has been applied to Italy, to Ireland, even to Germany itself after the reunion with East Germany. It is wild exaggeration to call these countries sick when there is one country — Russia — that today more than ever deserves the title, Sick Man of Europe.

At the rate Russia’s population is dwindling, a situation that worsens with each passing day, present day Russia may become even sicker despite what would appear to be superior economic growth.

For, as Nicholas Eberstadt, the eminent demographer, pointed out in a recent paper, Russia faces a demographic crisis. Why? Because President Vladimir Putin and his administration are focused on the wrong target, increasing birthrates when their real target ought to be diminishing mortality rates.

Mr. Eberstadt’s paper, “The Emptying of Russia,” offers a startling statistic:

On New Year’s Day 1992, a week after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia’s population was estimated at 148.7 million. As of mid-2003, according to official Russian statistics, the Russian Federation’s population was 144.5 million. And the population drop will continue even faster, according to demographic projections. By 2025, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts a drop of 10 million in Russia while the U.N. predicts a drop of more than 21 million.

In the rest of Europe where depopulation is a matter of concern, there are 103 deaths for every 100 live births, but in Russia, it is 170 deaths for every 100 births. And, adds Mr. Eberstadt, this “demographic shock” is not a temporary trend.

According to reports, 13 percent of Russia’s married couples of childbearing age are infertile. That’s twice the figure for the United States. Syphilis in 2001, according to official figures, was 100 times higher in Russia than in Germany. Writes Mr. Eberstadt in his American Enterprise Institute paper:

“Russian womanhood has been scarred by the country’s extraordinary popular reliance upon abortion as a primary means of contraception — with the abortions in question conducted under the less-than-exemplary standards of Soviet and post-Soviet medicine…. Add to this the explosive spread of potentially curable sexually transmitted infections.”

Russian death rates are extraordinarily high. Between 1961-1962 and 2002, life expectancy at birth in Russia fell nearly 5 years for males, only slightly for females. Nearly all the increase in mortality rates for men is attributable to an “explosion in deaths related to cardiovascular disease (CVD) and injuries.” CVD mortality rates were dropping sharply in Japan, Western Europe and North America, and increasing among Russian men by 65 percent.

In Western Europe, Ireland had the highest CVD mortality. Russia’s is more than fourfold that of Ireland. As for violent deaths — murder, suicide, traffic, poisoning etc. — Russia is “in a category of its own,” writes Mr. Eberstadt. And the country is in no way prepared for its next major health threat: HIV/AIDS.

While Russia’s dismal health record is explicable by a number of things: smoking, poor diet, stress and so on, “it is impossible to overlook the deadly contribution of the Russian love affair with vodka,” writes Mr. Eberstadt. Binge-drinking is closely associated with CVD.

And how does the Putin government look upon this crisis? Writes Mr. Eberstadt:

“Russian policy circles persist in treating the country’s horrendous mortality rate with an insouciance verging on indifference. Authorities have adopted a virtual laissez-faire posture toward the conditions that lead to ‘excess mortality’ of something like 400,000 of their citizens each year.”

President Putin and his spokesmen can boast all they want about the economic growth, but the real story is not only the story of the country’s depopulation but a falloff in its youth population. Between 1975 and 2000, the number of young men ages 15 to 24 ran between 10 million and 13 million. By 2025, on current U.N. projections, the total will be barely 6 million.

Sick man of Europe? Very sick, indeed.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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