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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A Demographic Bottleneck

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 30 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- If current demographic trends hold, the number of teenagers in the Russian Federation will be smaller in 2001 than it was in 1959, the year in which the birth deficit from the World War II period cast the greatest shadow on that country.

Such an outcome will increase the competition for manpower between the Russian military and the Russian economy, making it more difficult for the former to maintain its current force structure and more difficult for the latter to recover from its current problems.

And as a result, this looming demographic bottleneck -- one not unique to Russia at a time of dramatically falling birthrates across the developed world but one that is likely to hit that country far harder and sooner than any other -- will inevitably restrict the broader policy options available to the Russian government in each of these areas.

Such far-reaching consequences were probably far from the minds of researchers who made this prediction at a Russian pediatrics congress held in Moscow on Tuesday. There, according to published reports, scholars focused on the dramatic deterioration of the health and behavior of this age cohort.

According to the conferees, one in every 100 Russian teenagers is now an alcoholic or drug addict. The number suffering from venereal diseases has skyrocketed, up 2500 percent in recent years. And ever more Russian teens -- 300,000 as of this year -- are members of criminal gangs.

At a time in which the Russian authorities lack the resources to address either of these medical or social problems, the decline in the number of teenagers as a result of falling birthrates and the rising incidence of infant and child mortality may seem less immediately important. But in three ways, it is certain to prove far more so.

First of all, the Russian military and the Russian economy will be in ever more intense competition over a limited number of potential new entrants. In the past, the Russian military usually has won this competition. But it has been forced to keep the length of military service by draftees relatively short to limit the economic impact of such service.

Now, those in the economy may win this battle, a victory that would leave the Russian military with even fewer soldiers than its commanders are now predicting. And even if that does not happen, this competition by itself is likely to play an increasing role in Russian political life.

Second, to the extent that the Russian military becomes smaller in size, that development by itself is likely to limit Moscow's military options both domestically and internationally. It will certainly make it more rather than less difficult for the army to recover sufficiently to fight and win a limited conflict.

In addition, this trend is likely to push the Russian army toward ever greater reliance on nuclear weapons because they are relatively cheap compared to increasingly scarce personnel.

Such a trend will in turn affect both the relative influence of the army in the country's decision making and the strategic approach of the Russian government toward other major powers.

And third, this dramatic decline in potential new entrants to the workforce will not only make it more difficult for the Russian economy to recover but also force the Russian government to search for even more new sources of capital, including foreign investment.

In the past, Russian governments have promoted economic growth by adding additional labor and capital rather than by improving the productivity of those inputs. This demographic bottleneck will mean that Moscow will have less ability to do what it has traditionally done.

Immediately, the Russian government is likely to seek even more capital from abroad, a search that recent events suggest may be increasingly difficult. In the longer term, Moscow may have to shift to a more intensive approach to development, one that will make the skills of younger workers an even greater part of its calculations.

Over a generation or more, the Russian authorities may be able to change the population's demographic behavior in ways that will allow it to escape from this latest bottleneck to future development. But in the next few and clearly critical years, Russian leaders seem certain to have to try to cope with a demographic situation that leaves them far fewer options than they appeared to have in the past.