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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Demography And Development

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 2 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The demographic crisis in the Russian Federation and several other post-Soviet states serves not only as a break on economic development but also appears to be so deeply rooted in the social fabric of these countries that economic growth there by itself is unlikely to overcome it anytime soon.

And that pattern -- one very different from countries in Western Europe -- almost certainly will limit the ability of these societies to develop politically as well, thus further restricting their chance to escape from their communist pasts and to create the foundations for self-sustaining democratic development.

That disturbing conclusion is suggested in a new study prepared for the U.S. Defense Department by a group of scholars including Murray Feshbach, Nicholas Eberstadt and Vladimir Kontorovich. They focused on the Russian Federation, but their conclusion that the demographic crisis there "is unique from other historical precedents" clearly applies to other parts of the post-Soviet region as well.

Falling birthrates and rising death rates, the authors point out, mean that the Russian population will almost certainly be smaller in the future than it is today. Indeed, on Friday, the Russian statistics agency appeared to confirm that by releasing figures showing that the population of the Russian Federation fell by 346,700 in the first five months of 1999 alone, an acceleration of a trend that began earlier in this decade.

Because the number of deaths in the Russian Federation exceeded the number of births there during that period by 396,000, the agency said, the decline would have been even greater -- had it not been for the migration of some 47,000 ethnic Russians from former Soviet republics back to the Russian heartland.

Many analysts have blamed this situation on the economic difficulties the Russian Federation and other post-Soviet states now face. But the authors of the Defense Department study suggest that the demographic problems are much deeper, appear to be getting worse, and are likely to last even after these countries have begun to recover economically.

Some of these problems, these authors suggest, are rooted in ecological and epidemiological situations that the authorities do not appear to have either the resources or even the will to reverse. And these health problems, reflected in both falling life expectancies and declining populations, will in turn make it difficult for the Russian Federation and other countries to bounce back economically as quickly as many appear to expect.

In many respects, the authors of this study suggest, the health profile of Russia today currently resembles one in a Third World country that is doing poorly rather than the kind found in more developed states, even those that have gone through an acute economic crisis or even depression.

But perhaps the most important finding of this new study, the one with the broadest application, is that economic development by itself will not provide a sure cure for the demographic difficulties found in the post-Soviet states. Instead, these problems by themselves are likely to create political challenges in each of the three very different demographic regions of the former Soviet space.

In the Slavic countries, where the demographic crisis is the most severe, the aging and increasingly ill population is likely to demand expanded health care at a time when the authorities are trying to reduce government expenditures in order to allow for economic growth. Such demands could provide a base for political leaders interested in expanding the size of the state at the expense of the economy.

In the Baltic countries, where the populations are among the oldest in Europe, pensioners are in many instances turning away from the parties which led the drive to the recovery of independence toward political groups which promise to take care of them and their pension and health concerns in the future, a shift that may change the politics of all three of these countries over the next decade.

And in the historically Islamic countries of Central Asia, still high birthrates not only are putting more pressure on existing facilities but creating conditions for future political instability by reducing the average age of the population to levels more common in the poorest Third World countries than in Europe.

Demographic developments like these seldom attract much attention as they are taking place, but their consequences appear likely to prove far more important than many of the events which now garner headlines.