Russian Roulette with Dismal Demographic Data

Russia is often referred to as the, ‘Dying Bear:’ a symbolic reference to its steady decline in population numbers since the fall of Communism. Although Russia has prospered economically, its population numbers have not fared as well. Today, Russia has a population of nearly 141 million people, earning the title as the ninth largest country in the world.

Image courtesy of Iwan Gabovitch, © 2009, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Iwan Gabovitch, © 2009, some rights reserved.

However, according to projections by the United National Populations Division (UNPD), Russia will drop to twelfth place in a little over a decade. The UNPD puts the country’s population estimates anywhere from 121 to 137 million people by 2025 and under 110 million by 2050. These estimates are based on current population trends, barring any external or internal factors such as the outbreak of war or disease.

Since the fall of Communism in the early 90s, death rates have marginally exceeded birth rates, leading to a gradual decrease in the country’s population over two decades. At the same time, many Russians are leaving the country for destinations in Western Europe as they flee the repressive political policies under President Vladimir Putin.

These factors, however, only partially explain Russia’s demographic decline. The ubiquitous vodka bottles that line the countless shelves of Russian supermarkets are another huge problem for the country’s health numbers. Although the general stereotype goes that Russians are able to handle their fair share of alcohol, 600,000 premature deaths were attributed to alcoholism in 2011.

The rise in alcohol-related health issues has had adverse effects on the Russian economy and population numbers, as health care costs rise, drunk driving-related automobile accidents soar, social violence escalates, and suicides increase. All these alcohol-related factors have significantly contributed to the rise in the country’s death rates. As Yury Krupnov, director of the independent Institute of Demography, Migration and Regional Development in Moscow concludes, “Here in Russia, we have a European birth rate, but an African death rate.”

At the same time, the country’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has also been declining. TFR tells demographers how many offspring each woman has in a country. Russia’s TFR is at 1.61; lower than the 2.1 rate of replacement needed for stable population growth. Although Russia’s rate does not compare to Singapore’s 0.79 TFR, the numbers are still alarming given the fact that population numbers fall exponentially.

The reason why Russian state officials worry about these dismal demographic figures is because of the significant risks it would have on the country’s economic output and international position in the world. First, with a declining population, there would be significant economic strain on future working-age adults who are able to support the economically dependent, namely children and the elderly. Pensions and health care costs would similarly continue to rise as a result of fewer working adults paying taxes; ultimately exacerbating government funds for social welfare programs. There have been few, if any instances in modern history, where long-term population declines have also been met with sustained economic growth.

Second, Russia’s declining population may project an image of its weakening status in the international arena. For President Putin, who wants to both quadruple the country’s economic output and elevate Russia’s influence in the world to its superpower heyday, demographics are key. As he stated while campaigning for a disputed third term as President in 2012, “In a global sense, we are facing the risk of turning into an ‘empty space’ whose fate will not be decided by us.”

Given all these lugubrious demographic figures, what are the steps Russian officials are taking to combat their population decline? For one, the government has offered financial incentives for Russian mothers to bear more children. These include the ‘mother capital’ program which offers a $10,000 cash bonus for mothers who have more than two children. A year after the government implemented the programme the country recorded a slight uptick in its 2009 population figures from the previous year. Those figures may also be slightly distorted due to a change in immigrant registration figures that had accounted for larger population numbers. Since 2009, population numbers have continued on a steady downward trajectory.

Other policies that are being implemented to reverse the country’s population decline include generous resettlement programs for ethnic Russians living in former Soviet Republics in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Similarly, tough anti-alcohol campaigns have been implemented to stem the increase in alcohol-related deaths. To some success, male life expectancy has jumped from an average of 58 years in 2003 to 63 today, and the death rate has started to ebb.

Despite these campaigns and incentives, overall population growth has been dismal. Many claim that increased immigration is the answer to Russia’s population worries. Moscow alone has taken in around 8 million immigrants from the Caucuses region over the past decade. There are also huge risks associated with a mass influx of immigrants from neighboring regions. Ethnic and religious divisions, as seen in war-torn Chechnya, may increase as Muslims from Central Asia begin to move into Christian-dominated Russia.

These demographic issues are by no means a solely Russian problem. Many countries, including Japan and Germany, are coping with declining populations and grappling with the effects that a possible influx of migrants would have on the identity of their nations. It remains to be seen which policies will be truly effective in stemming the steady decline in Russia’s population numbers. Thus, the issues remain; is the Bear really dying or is it simply hibernating, soon to awake for mating season?

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