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Russia: Statistics Register Rise In Births, But Overall Demographic Picture Remains Grim

Newly released statistics indicate that Russia registered an increase in birthrates last year, raising hopes that the country's dire demographic trends will eventually be reversed. For now, however, death rates continue to outpace births, meaning an overall population decline is set to continue for the time being.

Prague, 26 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's State Statistical Office, Goskomstat, was the bearer of glad tidings this week, announcing an increase in the number of babies born in Russia in 2002.

Just under 1.4 million babies came into the world in Russia last year, translating into a birthrate of 9.8 per 1,000 people. This remains far below the figure of 13.4 births per 1,000 people registered in 1990. But any sign that Russia is recovering from its dramatic drop in fertility over the past decade will be seen as positive news by Moscow.

What is less welcome is the flip side of the demographic numbers, as Marina Rakhmaninova of Goskomstat tells RFE/RL: "The number of births is rising, yes, but the number of deaths is also growing."

Russia's Health Ministry reports that the death rate last year across the country reached 16.3 per 1,000 people -- in other words, people continue to die at more than 1 1/2 times the rate they are being born, resulting in a net population loss. In sum, Russia's demographic predicament offers little to cheer about.

To help make sense of the numbers, RFE/RL spoke to Vladimir Shkolnikov, a leading Russian demographer at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany.

Shkolnikov says the dramatic drop in fertility that Russia experienced after the fall of communism was a reflection of sudden economic and social upheaval, and was a common phenomenon across all of Eastern Europe. A pattern of slow recovery in fertility rates has also been common to the region in recent years. What sets Russia apart -- and makes it comparable only to a few other CIS countries -- is its rising mortality rates.

"Russia is one of the countries where an incredible drop in fertility was observed during the 1990s. But this was also the case for the Czech Republic, and for many [other] countries, like Bulgaria. It was a similar process for a big group of countries. But in respect to mortality, Russia is very different," Shkolnikov says.

Back in 1965, the average life expectancy for a Russian newborn exceeded 67 years. According to the most recent data compiled by Goskomstat, the average life expectancy for Russian men is now less than 59 years. For Russian women it is 72 years. The combined average is just over 65 years.

Demographers like Shkolnikov say some of the principal factors for the decline are increased alcohol abuse, stress, smoking, accidents, suicide, and crime. Many of those factors are interrelated and stem from new economic realities, where a few have become rich while a large percentage of Russia's breadwinners struggle just to remain above the poverty line. Working-age men are the most severely affected -- hence the unusually large disparity between men's and women's mortality rates.

Lurking on the horizon are dramatically worsening public health indicators, such as a skyrocketing rate of tuberculosis infection among prisoners, a potential HIV epidemic, and a more than 20-fold increase in the rate of sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis over the past decade. All these additional factors could further exacerbate Russia's high mortality rate in the years ahead.

But if so many men are dying of drink, disease, and crime, how can the increase in births be explained? Are potential mothers unaffected by the mix of social and health problems stalking Russia? Shkolnikov says the slight rise can be largely ascribed to so-called 'postponed births.'

"This is partly an effect of postponed births, because for many women, the first incredible stress of economic reform in 1992 was a signal for nearly stopping giving birth and many first births were postponed," Shkolnikov says. "And now, what we are witnessing in Russia is that there is an increase in birthrates at a relatively high age for mothers."

But Shkolnikov cautions that Russia's overall birthrate remains far below the natural replacement level of 2.1 children per couple.

"Overall, it should be understood very well that what we are talking about -- this increase proclaimed by Goskomstat -- I mean there is an increase, that's true, but this increase doesn't make a big difference demographically because this is an increase from the level 1.3 to the level of 1.4 and it has nothing to do with reaching the level of population replacement," he says.

According to a nationwide census conducted last year, Russia's population shrank from 148 million people in 1990 to 145 million in 2002, despite an in-migration of people from other countries in the CIS.

If the rising fertility-rate trend is to become long-lasting and help reverse Russia's population decline, then this new batch of older mothers will soon have to give birth to at least a second offspring. Whether they will or not remains uncertain -- and dependent, at least to a degree, on the government's ability to maintain economic stability and growth.