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Friday, May 02, 2008

The Sunday Apocalypse

Paul Goble reports:

Only days after Russian officials celebrated an uptick in the number of births in that country in 2007, demographers there have warned that this much cited figure does not constitute a trend and that “the depopulation of Russia will accelerate,” a development that threatens its economy, its ability to field an army, and even its hold on its current territory. In the April 29th issue of Vedomosti, journalist Olga Kuvshina cites the views of the members of that expert community that Moscow’s upbeat projects are “unrealistic” and that “after 2012, the country will face a new and rapidly deepening demographic “crisis” those in denial are doing little to prevent. “From 1992 through 2007,” they note, “the difference in the number of deaths over births totaled 12 million people,” a figure whose enormity is obvious if one thinks that this means that in the first six years of this century, Russia annually lost the population of Novgorod oblast or Krasnodar kray. And the 2007 increase in the number of births was, Vladimir Arkhangel’sky, a demographer at Moscow State University, argues, the produce of the mini-baby boom in the 1980s, something that has not been repeated anytime since and means the size of the prime child bearing age group will plummet after about five years.

But what is especially critical is that these declines in the overall population will be exceeded by declines in the working age group, with the “cadre deficit” amount to 22 million total by 2020. And that in turn will “put under threat the development of the country,” especially since it represents a major shift from the past. “In the last several years, the overall decline in the number of the population has been accompanied by [what demographers call] a ‘demographic dividend’ – a growth in the number of working age people.” But beginning this year, that dividend disappears, and in the future, the country will have fewer workers relative to other age groups. Last year, there were 0.6 children and pensioners for every worker, but by 2025, that ratio will be 1 to 0.8 and by 2050, it will be one to one.” That is not a projection or estimate, the scholars insist: “’the people [being counted] are already born, and we know how many of them there will be.’” (The decline of Russia’s working-population is exacerbated by alcoholism and a rising tide of industrial accidents which this year killed 180,000 Russian workers and seriously injured more than 200,000 others, according to statistics published in Moscow’s Utro yesterday.)

Moreover, the demographers say, Russia will continue to lag behind countries at similar levels of economic development. Men in countries with similar GDPs per capita now live three to eleven years longer than in Russia, and women there live one to five years longer than Russian women. According to Anatoly Vishnevsky, a leading Moscow demographer, the Russian government’s projection that life expectancy in Russia will be 75 by 2025 is without foundation. And another demographer who works in Germany noted that life expectancy in other countries is increasing by 0.22 years annually, while “in Russia it is falling.” The “chief” causes of that, the demographers say, is “the low value of human life in the eyes of the [Russian] state … and of [Russian] society itself. … Every year, about 200,000 [Russians] die from preventable causes, of whom two thirds pass away because of insufficient medial and social support.” More than 425,000 die from alcoholism, and deaths from high blood pressure is 4.2 times higher in Russia than the average of 15 countries in the European Union, the U.S. and Japan. These are problems the Russian government, given its income from the sale of gas and oil, could address but has chosen not to.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that this week, one branch of the Russian government decided to try to do something about this looming national tragedy: a new proposal has been taken up in the Duma that would increase the age for the legal purchase of alcohol from 18 to 21. That legislative step by itself will not reverse Russia’s demographic decline, but it is more significant than any now on offer by the Kremlin and the Russian executive branch more generally, both of which seem largely content to offer upbeat assessments very much at odds with unpleasant realities.

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