Russia is sliding into a demographic abyss, compromising its long-term economic, health, development and security prospects, according a recent report from the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR).
During its 11-plus years of post-communism independence, “Russia’s population apparently declined by more than 4 million people, or about 3 percent. In proportional terms, this was by no means the largest population loss recorded during that period,” wrote Nicholas Eberstadt, editor of the report from the Seattle-based nonprofit research organization.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin listed population decline as a top priority in his inaugural state of the nation speech and more recently described it as a “creeping catastrophe,” the report suggested that very little is being done to prevent it.
The obvious solution — encouraging young immigrants from overpopulated Asian neighbors such as China — is so politically sensitive that Russian leaders refuse to even discuss it.
The U.S. Census Bureau projects a Russian population decline of 19 million from 2000 to 2025. The United Nations Population Division (UNPD) foresees a drop of more than 21 million in that period.
Russia’s population loss is caused by “remarkably low birthrates” and “terrifyingly high death rates,” the NBR report said.
According to Council of Europe figures, Russia is not the only European country facing more deaths than births. For example, the balance is quite tight in Italy, where there are an average of 103 deaths for each 100 live births. Russia registers more than 170 deaths per 100 live births.
According to official Russian calculations, each woman must bear an average 2.33 children in her lifetime to stabilize the country’s population over generations. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian fertility rate plummeted from 2.19 children per woman in 1986 to 1987 to 1.17 in 1999. In 2001, the fertility rate was 1.25 in Russia.
“If Russia’s childbearing patterns from the year 2001 were extended indefinitely, each new generation of Russians would be over 40 percent smaller than its predecessor,” Mr. Eberstadt estimated.
This demographic transition is characteristic of industrial and industrializing nations and usually is associated with greater numbers of women joining the work force and rising divorce rates, both of which tend to reduce family size. Similar patterns have emerged in the United States and other Western countries.
However, Russia’s fertility patterns have followed a unique path in the past two decades, notably a shift toward earlier childbearing, a trend that is not noticeable in the United States or Western Europe.
The Russian fertility rate is among the world’s lowest, and its abortion rate is the highest.
The NBR report said abortion long has been seen as the primary means of birth control in Russia, with procedures “conducted under the less-than-exemplary standards of Soviet and post-Soviet medicine.” Abortion frequently poses health risks for Russian women because it is often performed without proper hygiene or anesthesia.
Some other reports suggest that 10 percent to 20 percent of Russian women become infertile after abortions.
The problem of infertility also is exacerbated by the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, which when untreated or inadequately treated can cause sterility.
The incidence of syphilis in 2001 was reportedly a hundred times higher in Russia than in Germany, and several hundred times higher than in other European countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium.
Economic hard times might have further influenced Russia’s fertility pattern. Although a two-child family is still the norm, economic difficulties might force postponement of having a second child.
But, the report said, “Far more ominous for Russia than the fertility prospect is the mortality outlook” because of declining average health. According to 2000 survival schedules, a 20-year-old Russian youth had only a 46 percent chance of reaching 65, compared with a 79 percent chance for an American that age.
From 1962 to 2002, a Russian’s life expectancy at birth fell by nearly three years.
The UNPD estimates that the life expectancy of Russian men today is lower than the average for men in “less-developed regions,” such as Africa, Asia and Latin America. The U.S. Census Bureau suggests that life expectancy for Russian men in the next two decades will reach the levels of their counterparts in Bangladesh and Pakistan, but will remain below the levels anticipated for India.
Growing alcohol consumption is one explanation for decreased life expectancy. Deaths from violence, injuries and other nonnatural causes also have contributed to the recent numbers. Russia’s homicide and suicide rates are among the highest in the world. In addition, deaths from illness and chronic and degenerative diseases, such as cancer, respiratory failure and circulatory and cardiovascular diseases, have risen sharply.
For people of working age — 25 to 64 — Russia’s level of cardiovascular mortality is more than four times that of Ireland, reported to be Western Europe’s highest level.
For men younger than 65, Russia’s level of violent deaths is four times that of Finland, the Western European nation with the worst record in this category, more than nine times that of Israel and more than a dozen times that of Britain.
The report says it is “well-known [that] men are more likely than women to die violent deaths, but in a gruesome crossover, these death rates for Russian women are now higher than for virtually any Western European men.”
Overall, Russia’s poor health record is blamed on dangerous behavior, such as smoking, poor diets, sedentary lifestyles, increasing social atomization, the “unimpressive” Soviet medical system and the limited health coverage of its successor.
The public-health sector has plunged into financial crisis. It found itself in an emerging market environment without the capacity to successfully compete in it. Left without proper funding, health care facilities abandoned new construction, renovation and other basic investments.
Cost-cutting necessitated switching to cheaper technologies, which proved insufficient to maintain previous health care levels.
These demographic trends clearly have negative implications for Russian economic development and security. The first cited in the report concerns the military, which faces shrinkage of the age group from which Russian army manpower is drawn. A low birthrate weakens Russia’s military potential because it might be difficult to keep up the strength of the army and the number of people engaged in the defense industry.
From 1975 to 2000, the number of young men 15 to 24 ranged between 10 million and 13 million. But according to UNPD projections, by 2025, the total will be down to barely 6 million.
And with fewer young people available to replace the retirees from the work force, the problem of improving the average skill levels in the economy will become even more acute. Every part of the Russian economy soon will face acute shortages of workers.
Russian leaders and the public are especially concerned about the effects that these trends might have — for example, questions have been raised about how a shrinking working-age population will support a growing number of elderly citizens.
“Russia’s successful participation in the world economy will ultimately depend on its human-resource base — which today is severely constrained by the nation’s health and mortality problem,” Mr. Eberstadt wrote.
Health and economic productivity are closely linked in the modern era. The wealth of a country depends on its human resources rather than its natural resources, making health an important component of its human capital.
The decline in births might result in a decline of the able-bodied population that is necessary to keep the country’s infrastructure going.
The current economic crisis significantly limits the Russian government’s ability to deal with demographic trends through policy intervention. In particular, the problems of the elderly will be difficult to manage.
However, the new demographic realities in Russia are not fundamentally different from those facing most industrial nations — a decreasing population, aging, shifts in family composition. Because it is impossible for Russia to avoid these changes, its challenge lies in addressing them effectively.