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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A Demographic Threat To Russian Security

Washington, 16 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A Russian government report says that the country's declining population now poses a serious threat to Russian national security. But the remedy Moscow has proposed -- promoting in-migration of ethnic Russians from other post-Soviet states -- is unlikely to make the contribution to solving the problem that some expect.

According to the report, released on Thursday, Russia's population declined by 768,000 in 1999 and may fall by another 2.8 million over the next three years. Such declines, the report suggests, reflect a low standard of living, inadequate health care, and rising rates of alcohol and drug abuse, trends that have already reduced male life expectancy and the birthrate and increased mortality rates of many age groups.

Speaking to a cabinet meeting at which the report was discussed, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said that Russia's economic and political future depends on finding a way out. "The decrease of the able-bodied population of the Russian Federation is not just a social problem," he said. "It is a problem of whether our state will develop successfully or not." And he said Russia would be "stuck" if what he called "decisive measures" are not taken now.

Russia has been suffering from these demographic problems for more than a decade, and as they have grown worse, they have made it more difficult to provide workers for factories and soldiers for the military. Moreover, because they have hit some regions more than others, they have had a political impact as well. And they have contributed to a sense of foreboding about the future that has often overshadowed positive developments.

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin raised this issue several times during his tenure and ultimately sought to address it by naming Valentina Matviyenko to the position of deputy prime minister with responsibility for social affairs. And last summer, President Vladimir Putin spoke about the problem in apocalyptic terms, telling his government that "we are facing the serious threat of turning into a decaying nation."

So far, the Russian authorities have not had much success in trying to reverse the situation, lacking either programs or funding to address the underlying problems. Now, Kasyanov and his government are pinning their hopes on something Russian scholars and officials have talked about in the past but have done relatively little to promote: the attraction of ethnic Russians living in other post-Soviet states.

Kasyanov himself admitted that doing this would not be easy. One report in the Russian press this week noted that Russia has a less than impressive track record in dealing with people the government often calls "compatriots." Not only are Russian authorities now spending less than one cent per ethnic Russian abroad each year, but Moscow has been unable to keep its promises to those who have returned.

But at its meeting Thursday, the Russian government called for the Federal and Ethnic Policy Ministry to develop a program for 2001 by 1 April and for a larger group of agencies to draw up a new migration policy for 2002-2005 by 15 May. Both documents, Russian media reports suggest, will devote particular attention to providing support for displaced persons. And Russian officials have suggested this week that such new programs could attract as many as three to five million people a year back to the Russian Federation. But analysts and experts have expressed doubts that Moscow will be able to find the funds needed for such an effort unless and until the economy begins to boom and provide jobs for such people.

Anatoly Vishnevsky, the director of Moscow's Center for Demography and Human Ecology, said this week that "in order to compensate for the natural population decline, which will continue for many years, the volume of immigration to Russia would have to be very large." The country "is not ready for that," he said, "either economically or even psychologically."

Arguing that only a dramatic increase in the birthrate could address the country's demographic decline, Vishnevsky said the government's talk about a quick fix through the promotion of immigration "sows illusions that will not turn into reality in the future." Instead, he and other demographers argue, Russia must turn the corner economically both to help its current residents and possibly to attract new ones.

Consequently, Russia is likely to face many of the security problems rooted in demography for some time to come. But by suggesting that immigration from the post-Soviet states is the answer, the Russian government may have unintentionally created for itself yet another and more immediate security problem as well.

Russian government calls for ethnic Russians to come back to the Russian Federation from the former Soviet republics and Baltic states appear likely to prompt some ethnic Russians in these countries to hold back from fully integrating into those societies. And such shifts in attitude could in turn create problems in Moscow's relationships with the countries it has declared its primary foreign policy focus.

In that event, Russia could easily become the exception to the rule that demography is destiny only in the very long term and find as Kasyanov suggests that Russia's demographic situation really is the key security question for his government and country right now.