By Michael Akerib, Rusconsult
‘The implosion of Russia could be the decisive factor in the 21st century. It would be a crisis in a disaster inside a catastrophe…. We are witnessing a remarkable event: the death of a great nation not through war or devastation but through its inability to rouse itself from its own suicidal tendencies.’
The world’s biggest country. A shrinking population of 143 million. A vanishing culture.
This sad story starts during the Second World War and continues under the oppressive Stalinist regime. So many died that there are no reliable figures. They were perhaps 20, or 30 or 50 million. They died fighting the invading German army, or were deported to the Gulag, or perished of hunger.
They died in Belarus, and Russia, and the Ukraine, and 9 million of them due to the forced collectivization program. Four to five million died because the system on which they relied, that of the Soviet era, collapsed in the early 1990s. While the country’s total population has been shrinking, that of some of the non-Russian ethnic groups has been rising. This is the case, for instance for the Armenians and the Chechens, while that of the Jews has been halved, essentially due to immigration.
The country’s birth rate started declining in the late 1980s while, simultaneously, the death rate rose sharply. Women gave birth at an older age even though still earlier than women in the rest of Europe.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1992, which coincided with a peak in population with fertility rates only slightly lower than the European average, led to a period of hyperinflation, insecurity, late payments of wages, an enormous gap between the oligarchs and the extremely poor (with a third of the population living below the poverty line, a huge increase compared to the past), a ballooning unemployment, and above all the collapse of the social system that took care of Russians from cradle to grave.
Health conditions in the country worsened as spending on health and pro-natalist policies were cut, are still not growing and are not well spent. Disability and morality rates soared as patients could not afford the price of consultations or of drugs. Couples decreased the number of children they had by half – from two, on average, to one. Sales of female contraceptives and abortions (the standard contraceptive method in the country) soared, the age of marriage increased and the number of children born out of wedlock ballooned.
The behavior of couples did not change when the economic conditions improved and there has been an acceleration in population decline with the number of births unable to catch up with the number of deaths. Not only women have less children, but the number of women of reproductive age is also declining fast. The figure for infertile women is also believed to be high – 5 million.
The gender imbalance, 1.16 women per 1 man, and the difficulty women living in rural areas have to find husbands not addicted to alcohol, lead to a low number of marriages and therefore low fertility. Out of 77 million women in the country, only 34 million are married.
A pro-natalist policy was established in 2007 with monetary allowances, the distribution of a capital and more space devoted to large families. These measures, however, only represent 1.5% of GDP when other European countries spend between 2 and 4%. It is doubtful that these measures have been instrumental in the increase in births since 2000, with the total fertility rate increasing from 1.3 children in 2006 to 1.7 in 2012. It has rather been attributed to a peak in the number of women at peak reproductive age, and is, therefore, unsustainable. Pre-school facilities, which have been shown in other countries to be instrumental in pushing up birth rates, are insufficient with less than 60% of children having access to them.
Since the mid-1960s the gap in life expectancy between Russians and the rest of Europe has been widening.
While women’s life expectancy has remained stable, that of males has shortened by 5 years and is the shortest of any European country and is even lower than that of a number of developing countries. Figures of 2013 show that women’s life expectancy is of 76.7 years, of which 66.6 in good health, the corresponding figures for men being 68.9 and 65.7. Infant mortality is still higher than in Europe and Japan, although it has been decreasing. Neonatal mortality rates are three times higher than that of Switzerland, which has the lowest rate in Europe. In spite of these figures, the percentage of the population older than 60 is close to 20%, while those over 80 represent 3% of the population.
When the Soviet Union split into its components, 6 million people migrated to Russia from the new republics with the result that, officially, 30% of the babies born in Moscow have non-Russian mothers. The unofficial figure is probably higher as illegal migrants are not included. It thus makes Russia the country with the world’s second largest immigrant population, with Russians seeing these waves of arrivals as a threat to their national identity. This flow, however, compensates for only 50% for the country’s population loss. Up to 3 million Russians have immigrated to various countries and women, in particular, have left in large numbers to marry abroad – and eventually divorce.
Russia’s mortality is high by any standards, and is rated 22nd highest in the world. There is a north-south gradient, with the higher mortality in the North of the country while the South suffers a much smaller one.
The main causes of death are:
- Binge drinking whether it is vodka or a surrogate alcohol
- Coronary heart diseases with smoking a major causal factor
- Injuries due to a high crime rate
- Road accidents
- Intravenous drug use with AIDS as a frequent consequence
The disease has reached epidemic proportions with the injection of intravenous drugs as the main mode of transmission. A small number of those infected receive any form of treatment. While there are no official statistics, it is believed that 100 000 persons die each year.
Alcohol consumption, and binge drinking in particular, is an important factor in the mortality of working-age men – 20% of the deaths, or 400 000 men annually. Women have also started drinking heavily and this is reflected in the increasing number of women dying from liver cirrhosis. Children as young as 10 have also been diagnosed as alcoholics. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a sharp increase in alcohol consumption and of alcohol-related deaths,
Forty three million men are reputed to be smokers in Russia, making it the country with the largest number of smokers. While 60% of the men smoke, only 20% of the women do. It is estimated that over 40% of the deaths of men of the 35-60 age range is due to smoking – in other words up to 400 000 per year.
Coronary vascular disease (CVD)
57% of all deaths have been attributed to CVD which a big killer particularly in the group of working age adults. This large figure, particularly when compared to other European countries, results from neglect by public health authorities to respond adequately to this situation which has been estimated to cost 3% of GDP. The risk factors are mainly alcohol and tobacco as well as a high consumption of animal fats.
The country has one of the world’s highest murder rates even though the figure has gone down since the 1990s.
Road accidents are responsible for 30 000 deaths per year which is roughly two thirds of all European road deaths. Increased controls and higher fines should be a deterrent that would lead to a reduced mortality if corruption does not get in the way and allows the traffic police to collect money in exchange of closing their eyes. Investments to improve and increase the road network is also essential. Bundled, these measures could save up to 3% of GDP.
Intravenous drug use
Russia is one of the world’s largest users of heroin. Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of poppy seed which is treated in Central Asia to produce the drug which is then transported on to Russia. The state has not made major investments in attempts to curtail the use of the drug or to rehabilitate addicts in spite of the fact that every year 100 000 deaths are attributed to drug use.
The increase in the number of infected patients has risen in parallel with the rise in poverty and in the number of prisoners, with up to 0.1% of the population believed to be contaminated. It is particularly the working age population that is affected. Some of the strains, particularly those infecting children, are antibiotic resistant. Diagnosis is done at a late stage or not at all and treatment in hospitals helps spread the infection.
Environmental pollution is estimated to be responsible for the annual death of up to half a million persons and to up to 200 000 miscarriages. The main pollutant is air pollution due to traffic and 60 million people are estimated to be affected. Water pollution is also a major problem with ‘clean’ water in lakes and rivers representing not more than 15% of the total amount of water they contain, and 70% of the ground water being contaminated. Chemical and radioactive pollution of soils is responsible for a decline in land productivity. Residential areas are contaminated with a variety of chemicals and metals from industrial waste sites.
As the country’s population is shrinking by 1 million per year, the number of dependent persons as a ratio to able-bodied persons is expected to increase by 40% by 2025. There is already a shortage in the workforce and up to a quarter of all pensioners still work as their pensions are too small. There are also around 10 million handicapped persons and this figure is expected to double by 2020.
Pensions of middle-class employees are of the order of only 10% of their last salaries. Unless urgent measures are taken, the economy could collapse by 2035. As the population is aging, expenses linked to the senior segment of the population is expected to balloon to 25% of GDP by 2050, as against 13% today. Pension payments are also expected to double. A solution could be in an increase of productivity by concentrating investments on new industries and by increasing productivity on these very same industries.
The cost of aging
Although studies have shown that extending male life expectancy by 1 year increases GNP per capita by about 8%, aging also has a cost. Even with the present rather meagre pension system, the aging of the Russian population would create a situation whereby up to 4% of GDP would be required to cover pensions. Governments may be tempted to increase the money supply and thus create inflation.
Societal costs are many, and one of the most important ones is the fact that older persons consume less goods in general, and of fast moving consumer goods in particular. The drop in sales of these products will translate inevitably in Europe becoming a less interesting market for investors.
As the population shrinks, so does demand for real estate and prices slide. However, conversely, the need for infrastructure investments diminishes leading to lower interest rates as financing needs decrease. Violence, essentially committed by younger people, also decreases.
First of all, Russia’s voice would no longer carry significant weight in international affairs. Already now it is unable to raise enough conscripts for its army to deploy fully if it needs to do so, and a professional army would be too expensive to finance. Furthermore, in view of the imbalance in the birth rate between Christians and Muslims, the latter would represent a sufficiently high percentage of the troops to make the ethnically Russian officers uncomfortable.
The idea of drafting women has been raised almost in desperation as forecasts of young men at the age of conscription, and in good health, are dismal. A small army would not be able to adequately defend its extensive borders, making the country prone to the use of nuclear weapons in case of an attack, whether along the border with China or by Turkey or other Islamic countries from the South.
Russia is surrounded by countries that have a growing demography or a substantially larger population and who may well eye at the open space offered by Russia’s declining population. As an example, on either side of the border in the Pacific area, the Chinese population is 20 times that of the Russian population. China suffers from an imbalance in the sex ratio, with a large proportion of men compared to women, while Russia suffers from the opposite imbalance. They are therefore complementary, particularly as Russian women prefer Chinese men who are more hard working and are not prone to alcoholic bouts.
Asian Russia – Siberia and the Far East – is the area that is the most intensely put at risk due to population decline resulting mostly from internal migration, thus leaving empty large swathes of land. Asian Russia is bigger than China itself and therefore could well be a tempting empty land for China to seize. It could invoke as unfair the 19th century treaties that gave the Pacific to Russia or it could simply infiltrate Chinese to gradually occupy the land.
In addition to the land, Siberia holds vast deposits of hydrocarbons that could feed China’s energy needs. Switching supplies from Europe to China makes Russia more dependent on China, but not the other way round as China has been very active diversifying its supply sources. Russia has also large quantities of water, and that compares favorably with China where the aquifers are running dry thus reducing significantly the grain harvests. However, a simple occupation of the land would not serve its purpose as infrastructure would have to be built in a rather hostile environment.
A base on the Pacific would also allow China to have an outlet on the Sea of Japan, thus offering considerable strategic advantages. What Japan’s reaction might be, however, is anyone’s guess. Any massive population movement from China would no doubt be countered in one way or another by Russia and any military adventure would face the might of Russian missiles and perhaps even of an alliance led by the US that sees China’s expansionism as a major threat, if not the major threat to its hegemony.
Several scenarios have been published.
If no measures, to both reduce excessive mortality and encourage increased natality, are implemented, then the country’s population in 2050 will be of 113 million. A more negative scenario sees the figure dropping below 100 million, while an optimistic one, which assumes a reduction in mortality, sees a small growth to 160 million, also by 2050.
The negative scenarios would lead to a reduced economic growth due to a lack of investment. There will be an imbalance among the industries, particularly in the high tech innovative industries which cannot afford to pay the same salaries as well established corporations. Hospitals, retirement homes and all types of facilities for older people will require more investments and manpower. While the seniors will require training to update them in their competencies, the country will require fewer academic institutions as the number of student cohorts will diminish. The army will face a manpower problem.
A positive scenario appears if 10% of GDP is spent on positive measures. The population would stabilize at its present level.
The main measures that should be implemented are:
- limited access to alcohol and tobacco
- maintaining health care facilities in remote rural areas
- stronger childhood support measures such as general allowances, better child care possibilities and part-time work for mothers
- improving the road infrastructure
- encourage migration by offering subsidized housing and land, particularly for settlement in the Pacific and other neglected regions by returning Russian nationals
- curtail emigration by offering better employment possibilities.
- If these measures are implemented successfully, Russia’s population could reach 160 million by the turn of the century.
As things stand today, this, unfortunately, is not the most probable scenario.
Russia’s children, Maria, Masha, Mikhail, Misha, may fade into oblivion.