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Chronic demographic problem greets contestants


SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Moscow, March 2, 2012 22:07
Tags : Moscow Elections 2012 | vladimir putin | moscow |OECD countries | Russian population bureau |

Amidst all the brouhaha over corruption, democratization and economic stability, there is one electoral issue that seems to have largely missed the media radar here in Russia. Although it might sound non-serious, probably even trivial, the issue was declared in 2006 as the “single biggest problem facing Russia” by none other than Vladimir Putin, then the president. It’s Russia’s chronic demographic decline.

Roaming around the streets of Moscow, one can easily make out the sheer absence of children and people of young age so prevalent in Asian and other Third World capital cities. In fact, it is even lesser than the OECD countries that face population stagnation and decline. It is not for nothing that with the exception of the Communist Party contender Gennady Zyuganov, every contestant fighting for the post of president has something or other to offer in his election manifesto.

Let’s look at the magnitude of the problem first. Russia’s population is annually declining by over 700,000 people, which means there is persistent depopulation of the northern and eastern Russia, the areas that fall under weather extremes. Locals who travel by Trans-Siberian railway swear that they have seen a gradual increase in abandoned villages every passing year.

There are varied estimates on what will happen in another 4 decades. Independent organizations, UN and Russian population bureau suggest anything between 80 and 107 million by 2050 from the current 143 million. The only word can justly describe this magnitude is ‘Catastrophe’.

But if experts are to be believed, even these figures are “optimistic”. Says Viktor Perevedentsev, Russia’s most celebrated demographer and analyst, “When I see these figures, I become restless. To say that the situation is alarming will be an understatement. We reached a tipping point half a decade ago. What we need now is an immediate direct intervention. Birth-rates in OECD nations are either stagnant or slowly declining. However, when the factors like very low life-expectancy and perennial poor health condition pitch in, the cumulative result that you get is Russian federation.”

But is direct intervention possible now? Can the situation be salvaged? During the Soviet days, a centralized plan was initiated that led to a brief period of population boom. However, following the disintegration, the new state neither possesses the logistics nor motivation to restart it.

Several reasons have been attributed for this chronic decline: low life expectancy, unhealthy lifestyle, disastrous diet, deteriorating healthcare and pre-natal care and what not. However if The Lancet, one of the world’s most respected medical journal is to be believed, the single biggest cause is acute alcoholism that has gripped Russia. It has lead to an average male life expectancy in 50s, at least 15 years less than the average in OECD nations. But there is problem on the female side too. Russian population bureau suggest that a Russian woman on average had 1.34 babies during her lifetime, a figure substantially below the 2.1 babies per woman deemed as the replacement rate in OECD nations. This replacement rate is the rate that keeps the population at least stagnant.

Several aspects of this problem have been politicized in last decade. It has been suggested that while the ethnic Russian regions are seeing decline, the Muslim dominated areas have seen a persistent rise in population. Chechens, Ingush and Dagestanis have grown rapidly following the disintegration and the news has set alarm bells ringing among the right-wing and Slav nationalists.
Therefore when it was quietly suggested few years ago that the government must promote controlled immigration from ex-Soviet nations of central Asia and Caucuses, the idea was put down no so quietly.

“As of today, after exhausting all possible options, the only option left is controlled immigration. Show me some other option and I might lap it up. But there isn’t any,” quips Anatoly Vishnevsky, head of the Moscow-based Demography Institute.

But who is listening? Putin has spent considerable pages on the issue and has proposed fresh actions to combat alcoholism and drug abuse, incentives for women who have more than two children as well as a new immigration policy targeting both foreigners and Russians who have migrated to other countries. On the other hand, Sergey Mironov of ‘A Just Russia’ plans to eradicate poverty and improve general healthcare to address the issue.

 He has been a vocal critic of migration control. Billionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov has focused on cash endowments for large families, whereas Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the most ironically named ‘Liberal Democratic’ party has suggested ideas like banning abortions and polygamy to start with.  The solution, experts suggest, is somewhere in between. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017