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Russia: A Population 'Cross' To Bear (Part 3)

Russians are dying faster than they are reproducing and the population drop shows no sign of abating. In this third of a five-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox explores some of the issues involved and asks what can possibly be done to remedy the demographic decline.

Prague, 19 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It's been called the Russian cross.

The country's birth rate is plummeting while its death rate soars. Plotted on a graph, these grim demographic trends form an 'X.'

The facts are indeed alarming. While a girl born in Russia can expect to live till she's 72, a boy isn't even likely to see his 60th birthday. That's an improvement from 1994, when his life expectancy was just under 58 -- but it's still the biggest such gender gap in the world.

Russian men are not slipping away peacefully -- they're drinking and smoking themselves to death, committing suicide, being murdered, or dying in accidents.

And they're not being replaced, either -- at just 1.2 children per woman, the birth rate has fallen from 2.0 children per woman 30 years ago and is now one of the world's lowest.

A report from the Population Reference Bureau for this year says Russia's population could drop by 16 million in 50 years -- one-ninth below its current level.

Behind the attention-grabbing figures, a more complicated picture emerges. A recent study by the U.S.-based RAND think tank suggests that current indicators are, to some degree, a continuation of long-term trends.

With the exception of a brief blip in the 1980s -- when state policies promoted larger families and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev cracked down on heavy drinking -- Russia's birthrate and life expectancy have been falling for decades. And observers say the country's harsh economic climate has further exacerbated these re-established long-term patterns.

Anatoly Vishnevsky heads Moscow's Center for Demography and Human Ecology. He agrees the trends are nothing new: "I think they are mainly a continuation of long-term tendencies. As regards the birthrate -- it doesn't differ much from the majority of European countries, so I don't see any basis for seeing any typically Russian phenomenon here."

He says where Russians do exceed others is in dying young -- though he adds that this is also a long-term trend.

"The [life-expectancy] gap between Russia and most developed countries began to grow in the second half of the 1960s, and since then it's just gotten bigger, with the exception of some short periods. For example, during the anti-alcohol campaign of 1985-87, mortality dropped in Russia, but then it rose again and it has returned to the path that it had been on for the previous 20 years."

In other words, Russia has the worst of both worlds -- too few babies like in the West, and short lifespans closer to those in some developing countries.

Julian Schweitzer is the World Bank's country director for Russia. He says the country's demographic shifts produce some opposing economic impacts.

"From one point of view, the low birth rate puts less pressure on the education and health systems, but from another it has major impacts on the health-care systems later on in life. With such very high levels of mortality, particularly for men in their 50s and 60s, Russia is losing a lot of very productive people very early on in life."

A related problem is that fewer babies mean fewer people in the future working to pay for the elderly population's pensions. Schweitzer says this problem is common in other countries, but is exacerbated in Russia due to the low life expectancy, particularly of men.

He says some private pension funds already exist, but that legislation is now under discussion that would create a so-called "second pillar" of pension schemes to supplement the state-funded system.

Under the proposal, part of a person's salary would be paid into a private plan. The intention is two-fold -- to ease the burden on the state pension scheme and to boost the local financial sector with the resulting flood of investment.

Whether this will work in Russia's weak financial sector is still open to debate. Schweitzer calls it a "chicken-and-egg problem" -- critics say a pension system can't work until financial institutions are strong and reliable, while others say a private pension system will be the very thing to help strengthen those institutions.

So what kind of policies could help address the problem?

One of the more headline-grabbing ideas -- proposed by far-right deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- was to legalize polygamy. Not surprisingly, the Duma rejected this out of hand in a vote last year. But the idea received fresh attention earlier this summer when Russia's Mufti Ravil Gainutdin proposed it as a way to halt the demographic decline.

More seriously, Schweitzer of the World Bank sees economic growth as the key to remedying low life expectancy -- as living standards rise, people's health improves and governments have more cash and time to spend on projects such as preventive health care.

Mikko Vienonen is the World Health Organization's special representative in Russia. He cites one initiative to halt the demographic decline that generally has limited success: trying to encourage women in industrialized countries with a large female workforce to have more children.

"Usually what you get is a one- or two-year baby boom, so people who are planning to have a baby anyway might make it a bit earlier, but after that that's it."

He says another method can cause more problems than it solves: "The other way of trying to increase fertility is to make family planning more difficult. Unfortunately we see signs of that in Russia today, that for instance a federal program of family planning has been cut. [But] you don't increase fertility, you increase abortions, and perhaps [the number of] children in orphanages like we saw in Romania."

So what could work? For a start, Vienonen says, you can try to encourage the roughly 60 percent of Russian men who smoke to quit the habit -- and discourage others from starting.

"In the same way, when it comes to accident mortality, which is especially important for the working population, many countries have cut their traffic accidents in half by just forcing or encouraging people to use safety belts. In Moscow, no one uses safety belts. If you try, you get almost aggressive looks from the taxi driver."

Then there are what he calls "pricing policies." He says that when a bottle of alcohol costs the same as a carton of orange juice, such a ratio "is not healthy."

But Vishnevsky of the Center for Demography and Human Ecology says he doubts raising prices or taxing harmful goods would work: "The anti-alcohol campaign also petered out, because the population found its own ways of making hard liquor which were even cheaper, but often carried side effects from the low quality. Moreover, the production and trade of hard liquor is a large source of income for private producers and the government alike. So I don't see any forces that could actively fight to lower the consumption of hard liquor."

Russia's dwindling population could receive a boost in much the way that Western European countries are -- through immigration. Vishnevsky says that in the latter stages of the Soviet Union, migrants flocked to the Russian part from surrounding republics. But, he adds, this could be a problematic way to reverse the current demographic decline.

"The attitude to this has changed now in a sense -- the position has become poorer, and general opinion in Russia isn't too favorable towards immigration. The inflows of immigrants into Russia are small now. So it's very hard to count on this compensating in the near future for the natural decrease of the population. There's no tradition of it in the country. But if there won't be any immigration inflow, then the population will drop."

Still, the World Bank's Schweitzer finds cause for optimism in comparing two areas on either side of the Finnish and Russian border: "Twenty or 30 years ago, Finnish Karelia's population had exactly the same kind of problems that the population now has on the Russian side of the border. The difference now is the much higher living standard in Finland and much greater attention to issues of health promotion and health education and healthy lifestyles."

And that, he says, can be done in Russia too. Russia, he notes, is not much poorer than Finland was then. And the economic recovery of the last three years has already lifted some people out of absolute poverty, with an associated benefit to health.