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Analysis From Washington: Demography And Destiny

Washington, 7 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - The population of the Russian Federation is currently declining at a rate that may threaten the country's national security, according to a special Russian government commission looking into the issue.

In findings made public on Tuesday, the Presidential Commission on Women, Family and Demography said that Russia's mortality rate had more than doubled since 1960 and was higher than every country in Europe, the Americas and Asia except for Afghanistan and Cambodia.

And this disturbing trend appears to be worsening. Between 1989 and 1995, for example, the ratio of births to deaths in Russia was reversed.

In 1989, there were 1.6 million deaths compared to 2.2 million births. In 1995, by contrast, there were 2.2 million deaths compared to only 1.4 million births.

And as a result, not counting migration into the country, Russia lost some 2.7 million inhabitants between 1992 and 1995.

The report concluded that this precipitous decline in population could have serious national security consequences if it led some of Russia's neighbors, such as China, to advance territorial claims against depopulated regions within the Russian Federation.

While the report focused on Russia and its demographic problems -- a collapsing health care system, rising consumption of alcohol, and health problems among the young -- its conclusion about the security consequences of demography applies to other countries as well.

Three such demographic characteristics of a society that are likely to have such consequences include the distribution of the population within a country's territory, the age structure of a population, and its ethnic mix.

While the Russian report on that country's demographic decline did not mention it, Russia's real demographic problem is that since the end of Soviet-era subsidies to workers living in the northern and eastern parts of the country, workers have been moving south and west.

That has left many areas of the country, especially in Siberia and the Far East, even more underpopulated than they were and thus more vulnerable to the kind of territorial claims by outside powers that the report was concerned about.

Other countries in the region also face demographic problems arising from the distribution of the population. Kazakhstan, to name but one, has its population concentrated in the north and the south, with an underpopulated and potentially divisive zone in the middle.

Second, countries may face a demographic crisis because of the age structure of their populations. Birthrates determine how many people will be available for military service and work in the economy, but they also have another consequence.

If the populations are growing quickly, as in Central Asia, the state must cope with a large number of children relative to the number of workers. But if populations are growing slowly, as in Estonia and Latvia, the state must deal with large numbers of pensioners relative to the number of workers.

And third, the ethnic mix of a country's population also affects its national security. In Russia itself, the historically Islamic communities continue to grow relatively rapidly even as the ethnic Russians decline in size.

That trend will confront Moscow with a need to redistribute power between the core Russian regions and outlying Muslim ones in the relatively near future, something Russian politicians will have just as difficult a time doing as Soviet leaders did.

But other countries also face problems because of the ethnic mix of their populations. Latvia and Kazakhstan, whose titular nationalities do not form the overwhelming majority of their populations, must behave differently toward minorities than other states.

Further, in some of the former Soviet republics, some of the populations view ethnic Russians as potentially or even inherently disloyal, in part because of the regular claims made about them in Moscow.

Obviously, then, demography can play a key role. But except over the very long term, demography is not destiny in the area of national security or elsewhere.

Governments and populations can take steps to change demographic trends and behaviour. They can invest more in health care, they can adopt tax policies that favor larger families, and they can institute subsidies to encourage people to live in particular regions.

None of these things is necessarily easy, and none by itself guarantees success.

But in attempting to cope with such challenges, the governments in the former Soviet bloc, just like governments elseewhere, are increasingly recognizing that security rests not only on military might, but on the demographic behaviour of their populations.