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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Compounding A Demographic Disaster

Washington, 20 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's suggestion that increased immigration from former Soviet republics could help solve Russia's demographic crisis may trigger new problems in those countries, in Russia itself as well as in relations between the two.

Speaking in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk on Friday, Putin said that "we could have a perfect opportunity to attract labor resources from the former USSR through immigration."

He added that Moscow would have to rigidly control where such migrants would settle. "In our country, the immigrants settle on the Black Sea coast and live in Sochi," the Russian leader said, when in reality such people are most needed in Siberia and other regions.

And while Putin was not specific, he almost certainly hopes that this immigration will consist primarily of some of the more than 20 million ethnic Russians who remain in the 11 former Soviet republics and three Baltic states rather than of non-Russians from these countries.

But regardless of whether that is the case -- and Putin's remarks elsewhere strongly suggest that it is -- his proposal now highlights both the seriousness of Russia's demographic situation and the political risks he is willing to run to try to address it.

The extent of Russia's demographic debacle was outlined on the same day by Russian Labor and Social Development Minister Aleksandr Pochinok. He told the Duma that the country's demographic situation now threatens not only economic progress but also national security.

The population of the country, he said, has fallen by six million since 1992 and could fall 7.2 million more by 2015 if current trends continue. In that event, Pochinok added, Russia would fall from the seventh-largest country in the world in terms of population to the fourteenth.

He said that the extremely high death rates and low birth rate in Russia are "incomparable" with the demographic situation elsewhere in Europe, and he noted that in the last year, average male life expectancy in Russia fell below the pension age "for the first time ever."

The resulting aging of the population, Pochinok continued, means that Russia may soon face not unemployment but a lack of workers for the economy. And such a shortfall would represent an additional restriction on Moscow's ability to maintain a sizable military force.

Pochinok told the parliament the Russian government has "worked out" a demographic policy for the future to change these negative trends, but he gave few details. Consequently, Putin's remarks on the same day take on greater importance as a clue to future Russian policy.

But to the extent they do, the Russian president's words point to serious problems ahead across the region. The non-Russian countries could be the most affected.

If a large number of ethnic Russians in these countries -- almost all of whom are citizens of these states -- were to respond, that would both disorder their economies and exacerbate ethnic tensions, possibly leading some to view ethnic Russian communities there as disloyal.

And if a large number of ethnic non-Russians were to move to Russia, something Putin does not appear to want, that too could hurt the economies of these states, especially given Moscow's exit from the CIS visa free regime.

But Russia too could face numerous problems. Since 1991, Moscow has generally discouraged any Russian return, not only because of the lack of housing and jobs for such immigrants but also out of a desire to use its "compatriots" as a political lever in these states.

If large numbers of ethnic Russians did return, that would put a burden on the country's housing stock and challenge the government's ability to ensure that the immigrants went where Moscow would like them to go.

But if sizable numbers of non-Russians were to enter the country, that would almost certainly exacerbate ethnic tensions in Russia itself and possibly lead to a new outburst of extreme nationalism.

Russian politicians, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, have played on the anger many Russians feel toward "persons of Caucasus nationality." And opinion polls show that relatively few Russians would welcome even more such "Gastarbeiter" in their midst.

And because of the consequences such immigration would have in both the non-Russian countries and in Russia itself, such a policy almost certainly would cast a shadow on relations between Moscow and the 14 other states involved.

For most of the last decade, both Russian and non-Russian leaders generally have sought to promote the integration of all those living on the territories of their countries as the best means of preserving both internal stability and ethnic accord.

But because the situation in Russia has become so grave, Putin now appears prepared to move in a very different direction, one that could compound that demographic disaster into a political one as well.