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Russia's Dwindling Population Ensures Rigid Foreign Policy

8 MINS READApr 13, 2000 | 05:00 GMT
The Russian State Statistics Committee's monthly report on Russia's socioeconomic situation recently stated that Russia's death rate is almost twice as high as its birth rate. At the current rate of decline, Russia's population shrinks by about 2,500 every day. Over time, this decline will make difficult the mere survivability of the Russian state. Russia will move to reassert control over much of its former empire in an attempt to increase the population under Moscow's control. To successfully counter greater threats with fewer people, Russian foreign policy must become even more unyielding.

If Russia's birth and death rates stabilize at current levels, Russia's population in 2050 will be a mere 116 million. However, there are few signs that birth rates will rise or that death rates will stabilize. Russia health expert Dr. Murray Feshback of Georgetown University, co-author of the Environmental and Health Atlas of Russia, believes that Russia's population will likely drop to between 80 and 100 million by 2050. Such a population crash would require an annual population growth of -0.9 percent, the current rate is already -0.54 percent. New factors that exacerbate current trends certainly support Feshback's predictions.

An Accelerating Decline: Russia Faces New Demographic Hurdles

One factor that stabilized Russia's population to date, immigration, has slackened. Only 379,700 people moved to Russia in 1999, mostly from other former Soviet states, a 27 percent decrease from a year earlier. Meanwhile, emigration from Russia - at about 214,000 - remains steady. All this adds up to a net loss of 784,500 people in 1999 alone, according to the Russian State Statistics Committee.

Diseases are also hitting harder. There were 123,403 new cases of tuberculosis in Russia in 1999, bringing Russia's overall infection rate to 76 tubercular patients per 100,000 people, according to the Russian Health Ministry. (Forty per 100,000 constitutes an epidemic.) Complicating the problem, under an upcoming amnesty program Russia will release 4,000 tubercular people this year from its TB-rife prison system, half of whom carry drug resistant strains of TB. The death rate from TB is higher than that of any other major disease.

The death rate from syphilis has increased 44-fold since the Soviet collapse. The infection rate is now a disturbing 234 per 100,000 people. HIV infections skyrocketed 250 percent to 31,000 in just the last year. These diseases and others are crushing what is left of Russia's health care system, which in turn accelerates the demographic decline. The mortality rate of Russian women who die in childbirth has increased to 44 per 100,000 people, 2.5 times the European average.

Other factors are only now beginning to impact Russia's demographic crisis. Russia's suicide rate is now 40 per 100,000, one of the highest in the world. The number of registered alcoholics in Russia has doubled since 1992 to reach 2.2 million. More than 110,000 of these alcoholics are aged 12-16, according to Deputy Health Minister Olga Sharapova.

Russia simply lacks the basic health infrastructure to maintain its population. Roughly 50 percent of Moscow's residents live below the poverty line, with an average monthly salary of $280 - 4.2 times the average Russian income. Yet even in Russia's wealthiest city, almost one-third of Muscovites of draft age - the healthiest portion of the population - have been deemed ineligible for the draft for health reasons, according to Moscow's military commissar Lt. Gen. Mikhail Sorokin.

Even the basic necessities of population growth - families - are in decline. From January 1999 to January 2000 the number of marriages decreased by 5 percent and the number of divorces increased by 23 percent. About 70 percent of all pregnancies since 1994 ended in abortions. Partly because of this high abortion rate, one in five Russian couples are now infertile.

Russia in the 21st Century: Working with Less, Looking for More

There is little evidence that the Russian government is taking this internal threat seriously. Kremlin demographics advisor Vladimir Mukomel asserts that “no expert worth his salt could advance such predictions.” President-elect Vladimir Putin has made few statements on public health issues, only making vague statements about switching health authorities funded from local budgets to the federal budget - a budget that has no money to spare. Reversing the trend will require a massive relocation of resources and, above all, an increase in the birth rate. But according to ITAR-Tass, Russia's birth rate has been declining throughout this century. Russia's best-case scenario lies far below zero-population growth. The country must adapt to having fewer people.

Unable to avert its own impending demographic decline, Russia can extend its political and economic reach over areas of the former Soviet Union, reinstalling a version of the Russian overclass that existed in the Soviet era. This will be easiest in Central Asia. Here Russians constituted the bulk of the educated and technocratic elite during the Soviet years. Furthermore, the closest of these states, Kazakstan, is suffering demographic decline similar to Russia's. This new overclass will not be as large or as powerful as that of the old Soviet version due to Russia's weakness vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and the simple fact that there are now fewer Russians. But such an enlarged population will open up doors for Russia that would be otherwise closed.

The Military Angle: When You Run Out of Hordes

Demographic collapse will intensify nearly every other problem Russia faces, but Russia's greatest challenge will be strategic. Already Russian commanders are voicing concerns about difficulty in maintaining Russia's army. Sergey Ivanov, the secretary of the Russian Federation's Security Council stated on March 15 that "in 18 years' time the number of people due for military service will drop twofold [in half]," from 850,000 to 450,000.

Mass tactics have characterized Russia's wars over the past three centuries - Russia uses its superior manpower to the fullest. As the 21st century progresses and the Russian population drops, this tactic will be less and less feasible. Russia, already with one of the lowest population densities in the world, is faced with an increasingly daunting task. Its army is a mere shadow of what it was during the Soviet era, yet its borders are not appreciably shorter. Furthermore, in order to protect itself from Afghan spillover and Chechnya-style separatism, it remains militarily engaged in much of Central Asia.

Lacking the manpower, Russia could attempt to follow the U.S. example and make up for quantity with quality. However, Russia lacks the money to fund the across-the-board technology explosion that would be required to modernize the Russian military. Also, cruise missiles and the like are useful in projecting power, they are less useful in protecting vast tracts of land.

Russia does not have the population density to defend itself against expanding neighbors - or to continually thwart separatist regions - so Russia must take proactive steps. It cannot give an inch in the face of those seeking to pick away at the edges. Russia fears an expanding NATO to the west, thus Russia's belligerent statements against the inclusion of the Baltics in NATO. Russia faces growing Islamic radicalism to the south, thus its desire to lash the Central Asian states together in an anti-terrorist grouping. And then there is populous China to Russia's southeast. Russia's desire for a political alliance barely eclipses the security fears caused by large numbers of Chinese migrants - accounting for more than 70 percent of the population of some sections of the Russian Far East, according to the Indian daily newspaper The Hindu. This sense of siege is keen: Forty-five percent of Russians cannot name a country they consider friendly toward Russia, according to a poll taken by the Agency for Regional Political Research. If Russia sits still and does nothing, NATO will absorb Ukraine and the Baltics, China will populate its Far East, and the Taliban-inspired chaos of Afghanistan will creep north. It is no wonder that Russia is seeking to make an example of Chechnya. Future internal threats will be dealt with as harshly. As to external threats, there is a reason why Russia revised its nuclear doctrine: to make it easier to use nuclear weapons, the ultimate guarantors of territorial integrity.

Putin is taking steps in this direction. In Russia's most recent budget, Putin granted the Russian Defense Ministry a 50 percent increase in funding, a large portion of which is earmarked for maintaining the reliability of the Russian nuclear arsenal. This dependence will be viewed by all of Russia's neighbors as an aggressive, expansionist action. In reality, it is merely an act of self-defense by a country that is dwindling away.

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