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Analysis from Washington: Demography Influences Economic, Political Destiny In Russia

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 16 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A recommendation by the World Bank that the Russian government not privatize its state pension system calls attention to the increasing impact of demography on the policies and politics of the post-Soviet states.

In arguing against privatization, the bank officials noted that there are now fewer than three Russian workers for ever Russian retiree, a ratio that puts a far greater burden on the former and one that means the latter might be shortchanged in a privatized system.

Many Russian reformers are unhappy with the World Bank's position, but for three reasons, they are likely to go along.

First, Moscow needs the assistance of the World Bank and thus is generally willing to follow its dictates.

Second, the Russian authorities are likely to find it easier to continue doing what they have been doing, especially if it is consistent with the demands of the international donor community.

And third, as democratization proceeds, Russian politicians are likely to be ever more responsive to groups, such as the elderly, who have now form a far larger percentage of the population and even more of the electorate than ever before.

This last factor -- the direct impact of demography on politics -- is likely to prove increasingly important not only in Russia but across the post-Soviet states.

First, in many of these countries, such as Estonia, Latvia, and Ukraine, falling birth rates mean that the proportion of the population over 60 is rising. And the experience of other countries suggests that the elderly will vote in disproportionate numbers.

As a result, they are likely to serve as an increasingly important counterweight to those who would push for privatization without regard to its impact on pensioners.

Second, in other countries, such as those in Central Asia, high albeit falling birthrates mean that governments must contend with the very different burdens that a youthful population presents: the need for more schools and more jobs.

And these governments know that any failure to deal with these demographic pressures could lead to a politically explosive situation that they might be unable to contain.

Third, several of the countries in this region must carry an enormous burden as a result of refugee flows. In Azerbaijan, for example, one resident in seven is a refugee, something that inevitably casts a shadow on government activities of all kinds.

Fourth, many of these countries must confront the problems of rural depopulation and the uncontrolled influx of people into major cities. That is particularly true in Russia, where the collapse of state subsidies to those living in north are now moving south and west.

But it is true elsewhere as well. In Armenia, for instance, many people have fled the still earthquake-ravaged western regions to Yerevan. And some Armenians have even left the country as a whole.

And fifth, virtually all these countries must contend with the consequences of the fact that the demographic behavior of one ethnic group on their territory may be very different than that of another.

In Kazakhstan, for example, not only do ethnic Russians have a lower birth rate than ethnic Kazakhs but at least some of them are choosing to return to their titular ethnic homeland.

That means that the relationship numerical and political of ethnic Russians and ethnic Kazakhs in Kazakhstan is changing rapidly with unpredictable consequences for both groups and for that country.

Ten years ago, many observers in both the USSR and the West argued that demography might define the destiny of the Soviet Union, that differences in population growth rates between Slavs and Central Asians could tear the Soviet Union apart.

The impact of these differences at that time was probably less than many of these observers assumed not only because the differences were less dramatic than some of them suggested but also because the authoritarian Soviet system could often override them.

But now and especially in the future, demographic patterns in the post-Soviet states are likely to have the kind of impact that many had expected them to have earlier.

That conclusion reflects the declining ability of governments in this region to ignore demography either because of their own weakness or because of their commitment to democratic procedures.

And it suggests that both the peoples of this region and those outside who care what happens there should be paying more attention to demographic realities lest the impact of these realities prove not only unwanted but unexpected as well.