Demography: Russia's worst headache


Yury Philippov, RIA Novosti political commentator

The demographic problem in Russia is as crucial as it is in China. But if
China is trying to restrict its record-breaking birthrate, its northern
neighbor has to do the reverse. Russia's population is dwindling at the rate
of almost a million per year. The main reason is low birth rate, which is
desperately lagging behind a relatively high number of deaths. President
Vladimir Putin considers the declining birth rate a national priority.
Addressing the Federal Assembly last year, he expressed concern over "an
increasing number of one-child families." Clearly, this trend rules out even
mere reproduction of the population. "We must raise the prestige of
parenthood, and create a favorable environment for the birth and upbringing
of children," concluded the President.

The Russian Committee for Statistics has calculated that the Russian
population at present stands at 142.5 million. In the last six months, the
number of Russians has decreased by about 400,000. This negative trend has
been typical of Russia since the start of the 1990s. In the past decade
about 1.5 million children were born in Russia per year, that is, one baby
for 100 citizens. The death rate was 50% above this figure.

The biggest killer in Russia is heart attacks and other cardiovascular
diseases, which cause more than half of all deaths. Cancer also takes a
serious toll, accounting for another 12%-13% of all deaths.

Trying to stop the shrinking of its population, Russia has decided, among
other measures, to encourage immigration. It is an attractive country for
immigrants. Official statistics is not precise but the majority of experts
agree that there are at least a million Chinese immigrants in the Far East.
Russia's appeal is particularly great for immigrants from former Soviet
republics - Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia in the South Caucasus, Ukraine
and Moldova in Eastern Europe, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan in
Central Asia. Not all of these people are Russian or Russian speakers. Many
are from the indigenous population of these countries. Russia's average
living standards are higher, and job opportunities are better than in these
countries. Many dream of staying in Russia forever as Russian citizens. If
this does not work out for some reason, they are happy to have a temporary
job in Russia. This also brightens up their future.

According to official estimates, in the first nine months of last year, the
number of immigrants to Russia reached almost 75,000, which is more than
three times the relevant figure for the year before.

There are many forecasts of Russia's demographic future in the next 50
years. The birth and death rate correlation leads most experts to
pessimistic conclusions. In different estimates, if the demographic policy
is not drastically changed, by the year 2050 Russia's population will drop
to 120 million. Some even quote a figure of 90 million. If this happens, one
seventh of the world's surface will have the same population as today's
Germany or France.

But the trends are changing, which casts doubt over the forecasts based on
past figures alone. Russia is very rich in natural resources; its vast
territory can accommodate large numbers of people. It is hard to believe
that half a century from now the overpopulated world would ignore such an
opportunity. Futurologists - people who do not want to base their judgements
about the future on past trends- believe that in the 21st century Russia
will become the most attractive country for mass immigration, like North
America was for the European settlers.

The Russian government is trying hard to increase the birth rate and reduce
the mortality rate. Healthcare is one of its recent priority projects. In
the 20th century, Russia, and later the Soviet Union, were famous for high
medical standards. Today, the goal is to switch the healthcare system to
market principles.

Chairman of the Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament) has
suggested paying an allowance of $10,000 for every newborn child. Given the
current birth rate, Russia will have to spend about 15 billion dollars a
year for this purpose - a little less than its annual external debt service.

The government believes that this initiative would be an excessive burden
for the federal budget, but it is aware of the urgent need to stimulate the
declining birth rate with economic incentives. Budget transfers, measures to
upgrade the living standards, new birth and home care allowances for
children, state housing subsidies for young families, and large-scale
housing construction are eventually aimed at achieving this goal. -0-