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Russia: Kremlin At A Loss To Deal With Declining Population

Russia's population is decreasing by 750,000 people a year, with no foreseeable upswing. The Kremlin has called it a security threat, but specialists are at a loss as to how to tackle it. Our correspondent spoke with an expert, who says the problem of falling population extends beyond Russia's borders.

Moscow, 21 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- If present trends continue, Russia's population could fall by 22 million people by 2015. It's an alarming statistic that has grabbed the Kremlin's attention. During his recent state of the nation address, president Vladimir Putin warned the very survival of the nation could be at risk:

"If this trend continues, the survival of the nation will be in jeopardy. We are facing a real threat of becoming a 'senile' nation. The present demographic situation is really alarming."

Russian authorities have even included the problem of declining population in a new national security concept.

The demographic picture is indeed grim. The country's fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world. Its abortion rate is the world's highest.

Aggravating the problem is that Russians are dying younger on average. This is especially true for men.

Many blame the problem on the collapse of Russia's health and social protection system following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The communists take the issue farther, accusing Russia's reformers of "depopulating" the country. The communists have also played on xenophobic fears in Russia, saying the country's "gene fund" is being "dissolved" with unhealthy children and with a growing percentage of non-Russian immigrants.

But some specialists argue that even if Russia's economic hardships were to end tomorrow, the overall demographic picture would probably remain unchanged. That's because the most disturbing statistic-- Russia's falling birth rate --is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, it goes back at least 30 years, and some specialists say, even a century. Moreover, these specialists say there likely is no link between low birth rates and poverty.

Professor Sergei Zakharov, a leading demographer, works at the Russian Science Academy's Center for Demography and Human Ecology. He recently briefed Putin on the demographic situation in Russia.

Zakharov told RFE/RL that in many respects, the birth rate in Russia simply mirrors the well-known pattern of low birth-rates seen in most industrialized developed nations, like France or Japan. Despite its deplorable living standards, Russia, Zakharov says, belongs to the same category.

"Russia has the mentality of an urbanized society, with a high level of education with a social demand for these things. In what way is a Russian family different from a French one? They live in large cities, both mother and father work. Even if there is high unemployment, it's question of mentality, of values."

Zakharov notes that no government has figured out how to reverse the trend, holding out little hope the Kremlin will succeed.

In the past, though, it didn't stop them from trying. The Soviet Union launched program after program to jump-start the country's birth rate. Most, if not all, failed or had unintended results. In the 1980s, a series of family-friendly measures by the Soviet government only government only encouraged women to have children younger.

The Putin government appears to understand the difficulty it faces. The president's adviser for economic affairs, Andrei Illarionov, told Russian state television RTR recently that the government was working on measures to encourage more births, but only time will tell if they succeed.

Zinaida Suslova, an adviser to the Duma Committee on women's affairs, is skeptical of the Kremlin's intentions. She points out that it was Putin who vetoed an amended law on protecting families with more than three children. And according to Suslova, Russia's bad financial situation excludes any real policy options.

"The main reason for the veto is the lack of funds to implement what the law provides for."

But Zakharov says any government program will have to go beyond just encouraging more births. He says it's more about financing education and the health-care system.