Russia's Migrant Shortage Is Bigger Than Anyone Could Have Imagined

7 MINS READMay 27, 2019 | 09:00 GMT
A guard stops a vehicle at Russia's Troyebortnoye border checkpoint on the Russian-Ukrainian border.
(VIKTOR DRACHEV\TASS via Getty Images)

A crossing point on the Russian-Ukrainian border. A drop in Russia's net migration is compounding the country's poor demographic trends and could seriously threaten its economic viability.

  • The drop in Russia's net migration is compounding the country's poor demographic trends and could seriously threaten Russia's economic viability.
  • In addition to the emigration of young and educated Russians, current migration trends indicate that Russia will continue to face trouble in attracting workers from target countries to plug its demographic gaps at home.
  • Growing competition with emerging regional destinations for migration in Central Asia, as well as geopolitical disputes in Eastern Europe could scuttle Russia's efforts to reverse negative demographic trends.

That Russia is facing a significant demographic challenge is a surprise to no one — but the extent of the problem might be. According to Russia's state statistical service, Rosstat, migration in and out of Russia added only 124,900 people to the country's population last year. The drop stems both from a decline in the number of arrivals (which fell 4 percent in 2018 over the previous year's figure) and an increase in departures (which rose 16.9 percent last year compared with 2017). The figure is the smallest rise in net migration since 2005 — and because of recent changes in reporting methodology that occurred in 2011, the population numbers may be even more dire now than they were 14 years ago. Whatever the case, the figures are disconcerting for Russia, whose demographic downturn is just one factor clouding the country's economic future. Citizens might already be leaving the country in greater numbers than reported, but Rosstat's latest numbers suggest the country faces an even starker challenge in its effort to hit a net migration target of 300,000 a year — the figure that is necessary to sustain a zero-growth population. But if Moscow fails to achieve this base target, not only will it have to wrestle with the reality of a shrinking labor force, but its population decline could turn out to be much steeper than anyone expected.

The Big Picture

Russia's demographic decline stands in the way of Moscow's efforts to achieve its economic and security goals. With a diminishing population, Russia will have less ability to project its power externally, while ethnic and religious pressures could destabilize the country internally. Ultimately, the lack of people will place significant, long-term limits on Moscow's ability to sustain its economic and military power.

Falling Numbers

Russia has long struggled to maintain healthy population numbers, both because of limited birth rates and high levels of emigration, particularly among young and educated people who would otherwise bear more children and contribute to the national economy. Ultimately, the prospect of a significant population decline will not only hamper Russia's industrial activity but also hurt its ability to collect tax revenues, maintain its pension system and mobilize the military. To help alleviate the situation, Russia has turned to migration as a means to boost its population numbers and recruit workers. Even that strategy, however, presents problems: Many of the newcomers lack education, while their predominantly Muslim faith and ethnic differences from Slavic Russians has created cultural tensions in the country.

According to the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), an institute of higher learning, the drop in net migration accelerated in the final three quarters of 2018. In each of these quarters, net migration totaled only half as much as the same respective quarters in 2017, RANEPA reported. While the academy expects net migration to rise slightly in 2019 — albeit below the 200,000 mark — the underlying trajectory suggests that Russia will struggle to reverse the net migration trends, which causes a more profound population decline than expected. According to the Institute of Demography at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, these more recent developments in migration figures could leave Russia with just 128 million inhabitants by 2030, rather than the 140 million or more assumed by currently accepted forecasts.

A graphic showing aggregate migration to and from Russia and the number of Russian migrants to and from Russia vs. foreign migrants to and from the country.

Of course, reports of an impending decline in Russia's population are nothing new, as noted by Rosstat itself (in addition to the United Nations). While those forecasts have already pointed toward a possibly grim future, Russian migration trends in recent years now indicate that the trends might not even fulfill such pessimistic models. These forecasts are built on much more than just migration trends, and in the case of the United Nations, migration is only modeled in a crude way. Much more complex models of birth and mortality rates define portions of these forecasts, but migration still has an important effect on the ultimate trajectory.

Projections Meet Reality

The United Nations has provided a single population forecast for Russia, while Rosstat has published three separate forecasts with high, medium and low benchmark scenarios to help Moscow track how migration trends align with its expectations of population size. Because Russian net migration has been falling toward 100,000 since 2014, the different scenarios would require that trend to change direction — either upward for the more positive outlook or at least toward stagnation for the most pessimistic forecast. The recently reported migration numbers suggest that Russia will struggle to fulfill any of the projections — including the most negative outlook. Accordingly, if Russian migration continues to follow a trend similar to the reported numbers, the country could be set for an even bleaker demographic future.

Two charts illustrating shortcomings with Russian population projections.

Such trends are likely to continue since their underlying causes are not temporary but systemic; after all, Russia is a less-than-enticing destination for would-be migrants because of its poor wages and living conditions, as well as racism that makes it dangerous for non-Russian and non-Orthodox migrants. To this point, there is a major distinction in migration trends between the movement of Russian and foreign nationals. While net migration figures for Russian nationals — citizens leaving Russia or returning to it — has actually increased marginally, the net migration of foreign nationals has fallen sharply. Rosstat has not released any net migration data for non-Russians since 2017, but the trends from 2012 to 2017 — as well as the total migration figures from 2018 — suggest that the net migration of foreign nationals might have fallen to close to zero.

Searching for Willing Newcomers

But more than Russia's failure to attract newcomers, perhaps the strongest factor in dragging down the country's net migration figure is the departure of foreign nationals, a factor that indicates that Russia is having trouble retaining the foreign laborers working in the country — in addition to the difficulties of attracting new recruits. One potential reason — which RANEPA has raised, as have a number of other relevant scholars and experts on the region — is the possible growth of employment opportunities in countries like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Although there is no detailed data available to definitively confirm this suggestion, Russia's economic woes may have led many migrant workers to seek opportunities in the two former Soviet states. For one, both these countries exhibit less xenophobia toward foreign workers, according to regional experts on migration, something that further enhances their attractiveness.

But more than Russia's failure to attract newcomers, perhaps the strongest factor in dragging down the country's net migration figure is the departure of foreign nationals.

In addition to Central Asia, Eastern Europe has also traditionally been a major source of immigration to Russia, but many from that region now appear to be turning west, rather than east, in the search for a better life. And while Russia welcomed a higher number of pro-Moscow Ukrainian citizens in the wake of the Euromaidan uprising in 2014, this surge was only a temporary blip whose end will highlight the Kremlin's difficulties in attracting necessary workers.

In the end, these migratory trends stem in part from geopolitical splits between Russia and the West and economic trends, which will make it difficult for Russia to right the ship. Naturally, that doesn't entail that Russia is completely devoid of solutions to promote immigration, such as reforms to the migration service, though the effect of such measures may be limited. With the odds of reversing the downward net migration rate appearing dim, Russia could eventually consider going beyond its comfort zone of appealing to Russian-speaking populations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia to woo workers from the likes of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Doing so, however, would complicate the integration process even more given that the culture of the South Asian countries is even more foreign that those from the former Soviet space. If Russia fails to attract migrants to compensate for its labor shortages at home, it could face a future of even more dramatic population loss than previously expected.

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