Washington Times, December 1, 2004
Russia's population declines sharply as births
drop, nation's health falters
Russia is sliding into a demographic abyss, compromising
its long-term economic, health, development
and security prospects, according a recent
report from the National Bureau of Asian Research
During its 11-plus years of post-communism independence,
"Russia's population apparently declined
by more than 4 million people, or about 3 percent.
In proportional terms, this was by no means
the largest population loss recorded during
that period," wrote Nicholas Eberstadt,
editor of the report from the Seattle-based
nonprofit research organization.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin listed
population decline as a top priority in his
inaugural state of the nation speech and more
recently described it as a "creeping catastrophe,"
the report suggested that very little is being
done to prevent it.
The obvious solution - encouraging young immigrants
from overpopulated Asian neighbors such as
China - is so politically sensitive that Russian
leaders refuse to even discuss it.
The U.S. Census Bureau projects a Russian population
decline of 19 million from 2000 to 2025. The
United Nations Population Division (UNPD) foresees
a drop of more than 21 million in that period.
Russia's population loss is caused by "remarkably
low birthrates" and "terrifyingly
high death rates," the NBR report said.
According to Council of Europe figures, Russia
is not the only European country facing more
deaths than births. For example, the balance
is quite tight in Italy, where there are an
average of 103 deaths for each 100 live births.
Russia registers more than 170 deaths per 100
According to official Russian calculations, each
woman must bear an average 2.33 children in
her lifetime to stabilize the country's population
over generations. With the collapse of the
Soviet Union, Russian fertility rate plummeted
from 2.19 children per woman in 1986 to 1987
to 1.17 in 1999. In 2001, the fertility rate
was 1.25 in Russia.
"If Russia's childbearing patterns from
the year 2001 were extended indefinitely, each
new generation of Russians would be over 40
percent smaller than its predecessor,"
Mr. Eberstadt estimated.
This demographic transition is characteristic
of industrial and industrializing nations and
usually is associated with greater numbers
of women joining the work force and rising
divorce rates, both of which tend to reduce
family size. Similar patterns have emerged
in the United States and other Western countries.
However, Russia's fertility patterns have followed
a unique path in the past two decades, notably
a shift toward earlier childbearing, a trend
that is not noticeable in the United States
or Western Europe.
The Russian fertility rate is among the world's
lowest, and its abortion rate is the highest.
The NBR report said abortion long has been seen
as the primary means of birth control in Russia,
with procedures "conducted under the less-than-exemplary
standards of Soviet and post-Soviet medicine."
Abortion frequently poses health risks for
Russian women because it is often performed
without proper hygiene or anesthesia.
Some other reports suggest that 10 percent to
20 percent of Russian women become infertile
The problem of infertility also is exacerbated
by the spread of sexually transmitted diseases,
which when untreated or inadequately treated
can cause sterility.
The incidence of syphilis in 2001 was reportedly
a hundred times higher in Russia than in Germany,
and several hundred times higher than in other
European countries such as the Netherlands,
Sweden and Belgium.
Economic hard times might have further influenced
Russia's fertility pattern. Although a two-child
family is still the norm, economic difficulties
might force postponement of having a second
But, the report said, "Far more ominous
for Russia than the fertility prospect is the
mortality outlook" because of declining
average health. According to 2000 survival
schedules, a 20-year-old Russian youth had
only a 46 percent chance of reaching 65, compared
with a 79 percent chance for an American that
From 1962 to 2002, a Russian's life expectancy
at birth fell by nearly three years.
The UNPD estimates that the life expectancy of
Russian men today is lower than the average
for men in "less-developed regions,"
such as Africa, Asia and Latin America. The
U.S. Census Bureau suggests that life expectancy
for Russian men in the next two decades will
reach the levels of their counterparts in Bangladesh
and Pakistan, but will remain below the levels
anticipated for India.
Growing alcohol consumption is one explanation
for decreased life expectancy. Deaths from
violence, injuries and other nonnatural causes
also have contributed to the recent numbers.
Russia's homicide and suicide rates are among
the highest in the world. In addition, deaths
from illness and chronic and degenerative diseases,
such as cancer, respiratory failure and circulatory
and cardiovascular diseases, have risen sharply.
For people of working age - 25 to 64 - Russia's
level of cardiovascular mortality is more than
four times that of Ireland, reported to be
Western Europe's highest level.
For men younger than 65, Russia's level of violent
deaths is four times that of Finland, the Western
European nation with the worst record in this
category, more than nine times that of Israel
and more than a dozen times that of Britain.
The report says it is "well-known [that]
men are more likely than women to die violent
deaths, but in a gruesome crossover, these
death rates for Russian women are now higher
than for virtually any Western European men."
Overall, Russia's poor health record is blamed
on dangerous behavior, such as smoking, poor
diets, sedentary lifestyles, increasing social
atomization, the "unimpressive" Soviet
medical system and the limited health coverage
of its successor.
The public-health sector has plunged into financial
crisis. It found itself in an emerging market
environment without the capacity to successfully
compete in it. Left without proper funding,
health care facilities abandoned new construction,
renovation and other basic investments.
Cost-cutting necessitated switching to cheaper
technologies, which proved insufficient to
maintain previous health care levels.
These demographic trends clearly have negative
implications for Russian economic development
and security. The first cited in the report
concerns the military, which faces shrinkage
of the age group from which Russian army manpower
is drawn. A low birthrate weakens Russia's
military potential because it might be difficult
to keep up the strength of the army and the
number of people engaged in the defense industry.
From 1975 to 2000, the number of young men 15
to 24 ranged between 10 million and 13 million.
But according to UNPD projections, by 2025,
the total will be down to barely 6 million.
And with fewer young people available to replace
the retirees from the work force, the problem
of improving the average skill levels in the
economy will become even more acute. Every
part of the Russian economy soon will face
acute shortages of workers.
Russian leaders and the public are especially
concerned about the effects that these trends
might have - for example, questions have been
raised about how a shrinking working-age population
will support a growing number of elderly citizens.
"Russia's successful participation in the
world economy will ultimately depend on its
human-resource base - which today is severely
constrained by the nation's health and mortality
problem," Mr. Eberstadt wrote.
Health and economic productivity are closely
linked in the modern era. The wealth of a country
depends on its human resources rather than
its natural resources, making health an important
component of its human capital.
The decline in births might result in a decline
of the able-bodied population that is necessary
to keep the country's infrastructure going.
The current economic crisis significantly limits
the Russian government's ability to deal with
demographic trends through policy intervention.
In particular, the problems of the elderly
will be difficult to manage.
However, the new demographic realities in Russia
are not fundamentally different from those
facing most industrial nations - a decreasing
population, aging, shifts in family composition.
Because it is impossible for Russia to avoid
these changes, its challenge lies in addressing
<< Washington Times -- 11/28/04 >>
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