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Russia: Expert Sees Dangerous Population Decline

  • Andrew Tully

A U.S. expert says Russia could lose half its population by the middle of the 21st century because of low birth rates and disease. He says this could have very serious consequences not only for Russia but for the rest of the world. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 25 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A leading American demographer says he expects disease and pollution will cause a dangerous decline in Russia's population that could lead to severe political instability.

In fact, according to Murray Feshbach, this instability eventually could even lead to a nuclear holocaust.

Feshbach, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, says Russia's population will decline by nearly half to as little as 80 million people by the middle of the next century. He made his comments Friday during a briefing at the Washington offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Feshbach attributes the decline to a growing imbalance in Russia's death and birth rates. He said this is fueled by a rise in the incidence of diseases like AIDS; nutrition deficiencies; deadly pollution; a steady rate of risky personal behavior like smoking and excessive drinking; and the government's financial inability to cope with these problems.

For instance, he says the incidences of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in Russia are more and more frequent. He says it is virtually impossible to establish solid statistics for the exact number of cases of the two diseases, but he believes rates of increase are rising dramatically, and will put enormous economic pressure on Russia.

"The numbers are increasing super-geometrically, or something like that, and (that) has implications, of course, for economics in terms of 'Where is the money coming from to treat them?'"

For instance, in Russia, he says, it costs $15,000 a year for medication alone to treat an AIDS patient. This does not include hospital costs, staffing costs, even lesser expenses like laundering a patient's bed linen.

Feshbach says nutrition also is a problem in Russia. Because of financial constraints, he says, Russian salt producers stopped putting iodine in salt in 1991. As a result, most Russians have virtually no iodine in their diets and thus are susceptible to physical and even mental problems.

Pollution from deadly heavy metals like lead and mercury also are increasing, he says, while the government's monitoring of military and industrial waste is declining. He notes that once the Russian government monitored 350 cities for toxic emissions, and now it monitors only 90 -- again, because of financial constraints.

Feshbach says a progressively shrinking population with a progressively growing percentage of people who are ailing, disabled or mentally handicapped can lead to a smaller military. This, in turn, he says, could possibly lead to a population that might welcome a demagogue bent on resorting to nuclear weapons in the absence of a conventional military strategy.

"They want to look for a man on horseback -- and -- somebody who is liable to say, 'Apres moi, le deluge.' You know, 'I might as well just kill everybody and they'll kill me, and so, big deal [that's no problem], I'm going to die next year anyway.'"

The only positive sign he can find is that the Russian government is addressing the problems of disease more vigorously than it has in the past. Still, he says it must continue to do more.

"I think they're getting much more serious about the issue, [but] they're not looking enough into environmental health yet."

Feshbach's gloomy projections are not dismissed by other experts. In fact one, John Dori of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, said the theory may seem "extremely alarmist," as he put it, but Dori believes the trend to demagoguery needs no help from a decline in the health of the Russian people.

"These population and demographic factors that the professor talks about may contribute or perhaps even accelerate that trend, but frankly I'm worried that Russia is heading in that direction regardless."

Another expert has an equally bleak view, but he sees a way to prevent it. John Steinbrenner of the Brookings Institution, another Washington think tank, says if the West acts soon with massive, sustained assistance Russia can be stabilized.

"If it doesn't happen for decade after decade, I think his scenario is not completely outlandish."

Steinbrenner says what tends to make Western governments reluctant to do business with Russia is the perception that all Russians are corrupt. He says it is up to Russians to reach out to other countries to demonstrate that this perception is incorrect. Only then, Steinbrenner says, will they be able to prevent their own downfall.