Thursday, June 16, 2005

Russian Brides Cause Nationalist Panic

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the often unintentionally hillarious extreme nationalist member of Russia's parliament, provides no end of entertainment for the international media with his wild allegations, conspiracy theories and general loony behavior. But his most recent legislative proposal - to punish Russian women who marry foreigners - whilst sounding absurd to Western ears, actually reveals the very real panic building among Russian elites at their country's demographic decline.
Scandalised by the fact that some of Russia’s most beautiful women are opting to consort with foreigners instead of Russians, ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky has tabled a bill that would make them think twice before exchanging vows with a non-Russian.

His party, the incongruously named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), has drafted a draconian marriage bill that will now be considered by the Russian parliament, or Duma.

It envisages severe penalties for Russian girls or women who “unpatriotically” choose to marry a foreigner, a trend the LDPR believes is robbing the country’s gene pool of its greatest resource.

Tennis star Anna Kournikova – engaged to Spanish singer Enrique Iglesias – would be amongst the Russian beauties cast out of the motherland forever should the LDPR find support for the reform.

The economic and cultural conditions in Russia are such that many young Russian women would marry a foreigner to leave, if they could.
A poll conducted by the magazine Ogonyok last year showed that one in three 17 to 25-year-old girls in Russia dreams of marrying a foreigner, and overseas the popularity of “Russian bride” websites remains undimmed, with hundreds of young women meeting men online and travelling to Western Europe, the US and South America to wed.
Such figures, and the substantial drain on the already fragile Russian population they are causing, have permitted Mr. Zhirinovsky to indulge in enthno-nationalist rhetoric certain to raise hackels in the Western press (though the non-Western press probably has a more indifferent reaction).

In rhetoric reminiscent of that used by the Nazis when they talked about an Aryan race, the party believes that the large number of Russian women choosing to marry foreigners is a threat to national security that risks undermining the purity of the Russian race and Russian identity itself.

It is proposing punishing such female “traitors” by stripping them of their Russian citizenship, deporting them to the country of their new husband and never allowing them to return to Mother Russia.

The LDPR also wants them to feel the pain in their pockets and is suggesting that their Russian assets be automatically distributed among their relatives or given to the state.

The bill has been proposed formally by an LDPR MP called Nikolai Kuryanovich, a member of the Duma’s powerful National Security Committee, with the explicit backing of the fiery Zhirinovsky.

“Our wonderful women are the best in the world,” he told Ekho Moskvy radio without a hint of irony.

“Wherever I have been I have rarely seen nice beautiful girls. Only in Russia and some other Slav nations. Therefore, in order not to squander our gene pool, we are doing this.”

Kuryanovich went on to call Russia’s female gene pool a “national treasure” that must not be “spoilt” by unpatriotic weddings.

He warned that the trend of marrying foreigners would help outsiders acquire worrying levels of influence and territory in Russia through their spouses and said that the offspring of such ill-advised matches would not grow up to be “genuine” Russians.

He sees the biggest threat coming from Chinese men, many of whom have settled in Russia’s far east with Russian brides who appreciate the fact that their foreign husbands tend not to drink alcohol.

China unquestionably represent the greatest threat to Russia in the long term. The two nations share a several thousand mile long border, which Russia can no longer credibly defend with conventional military forces. Only Russia's aging nuclear arsenal offers the Kremlin any hope of retaining Siberia should China decide to acquire it. The two countries have clashed along the border in the past, but at the time the USSR possessed a much larger and more intimidating army than it does now. Intermarriage between Chinese men and Russian women from Siberia could very plausibly have the effect of weakening Siberia's connection to Moscow, whilst drawing its population closer to China by familial bonds.

Mr. Zhirinovsky's anti-foreign marriage act has little chance of being enacted into law, according to Russia observers, because it lacks the support of Vladamir Putin's increasingly all-powerful political machine.

Though the bill is unlikely to become law because it does not enjoy the support of President Vladimir Putin’s powerful United Russia party, the fact that it has been proposed and will be seriously considered by the Duma caused alarm in Russia, all the more so because the Kremlin often uses the LDPR as a platform to float ideas in advance so that it can gauge society’s reaction to them without taking any of the flak.
Underlying Mr. Zhirinovsky's proposal is a general fear of Russia's worsening demographic situation and the national weakness that it causes.

The Russian Federation today is in the grip of a steadily tightening mesh of serious demographic problems, for which the term "crisis" is no overstatement. This crisis is altering the realm of the possible for the country and its people—continuously, directly, and adversely. Russian social conditions, economic potential, military power, and international influence are today all subject to negative demographic constraints—and these constraints stand only to worsen over the years immediately ahead.

Russia is now at the brink of a steep population decline—a peacetime hemorrhage framed by a collapse of the birth rate and a catastrophic surge in the death rate. The forces that have shaped this path of depopulation and debilitation are powerful ones, and they are by now deeply rooted in Russian soil. Altering Russia's demographic trajectory would be a formidable task under any circumstances. As yet, unfortunately, neither Russia's political leadership nor the voting public that sustains it have even begun to face up to the enormous magnitude of the country's demographic challenges.

Unlike Western Europe or the US, Russia cannot attempt to use immigration to mask its inability to reproduce itself. Economic conditions in Russia are simply too unattractive to lure many immigrants to the country.

In the years ahead, Russia's population decline will continue to accelerate because the prospective flow of net migration into Russia is drying up. The officially tabulated annual levels of immigration to, and emigration from, Russia have declined markedly since the early 1990s-and officially measured net inflows to Russia have likewise dropped very significantly. These official numbers reflect the swelling, cresting, and spending of the migration wave of ethnic Russians from the "near abroad" who resettled to the Russian Federation during and immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The draw of Russia to the (now smaller) pool of overseas Russians appears to have been much diminished, while the allure to foreign ethnics of living on Russian soil does not seem to be increasing appreciably. Russia's reported economic growth rate in the very first years of the twenty-first century has been has been positive, even brisk. Nevertheless, according to official figures, the net inflow of migration to Russia totaled less than 80,000 in all of 2002, and a mere 25,000 in the first seven months of 2003. By the first quarter of 2004, according to official statistics, the officially tallied surfeit of immigrants over emigrants was barely 4,000 persons.

With in-migration flows thus subsiding, Russia's population must mirror, with ever-greater faithfulness, the actual balance of births and deaths within the country. And in post-Communist Russia, the current disproportion between deaths and births is stark, indeed astonishing.

The collapse of the Soviet Union heralded a sharp drop in Russian fertility.

Consider Russia's current fertility patterns. In a society with the Russian Federation's present survival patterns, women must bear an average of about 2.33 children per lifetime to assure population stability over successive generations. In the late Soviet era, Russian fertility levels were near replacement: The country's total fertility rate (TFR) fluctuated near two births per woman from the mid 1960s through the mid 1980s. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian fertility rate likewise collapsed, plummeting from 2.19 births per woman in 1986-87 to 1.17 in 1999. Moreover, extreme subreplacement fertility is not peculiar to certain regions of Russia today; to the contrary, it prevails across almost the entire territorial expanse of the Federation.
Prospects for reversing Russia's demographic plunge do not seem salutary, especially when considering the current socio-economic barriers to establishing successful two-parent families.

Between 1981 and 2001, marriage rates fell by over one third, while divorce rates rose by one third. In 2001, Russia recorded three divorces for every four new marriages—a breakup ratio even higher than Scandinavia's. The human import of these trends can perhaps be better understood by thinking in terms of a woman's odds of getting married or divorced. In 1990, under Russia's then-prevailing nuptiality patterns, marriage was almost universal—and the odds of eventually divorcing were about 40 percent. By 1995, the odds of getting married were down to 75 percent—while the odds of eventual divorce had risen to 50 percent. In just five years a Russian woman's odds of forming a lasting marriage dropped from about three in five to three in eight. Since then, the odds of having a lasting marriage in Russia seem to have declined still further.

At the same time that Russian marriages were becoming less common—and more fragile—the disposition to childbearing outside of marriage was increasing. In 1987—the recent high-water mark for Russian fertility—about 13 percent of the country's newborns were out of wedlock. By 2001, the proportion had more than doubled, to nearly 29 percent. The overwhelming majority of Russia's newly emerging cohort of illegitimate children, it seems, were being raised by single mothers. Consensual unions and cohabitation still account for the living arrangements of only a tiny fraction of Russia's young adults.

The rapid decline of the two-parent family in contemporary Russia undercuts prospects for substantial increases in national fertility levels. Relative to available household resources, all other things being equal, raising children in a mother-only family is a much more expensive and difficult proposition than in an intact family. It is true that fertility rates in Russia are currently 20 to 30 percent below those of the Scandinavian countries, even though the level of marital commitment in the Nordic countries is low, and the level of illegitimacy is high. But unlike the Scandinavian welfare states, Russia does not provide generous public benefits to help mothers raise their young children—nor could the Russian state afford to do so even if it were so inclined.

The decrease in Russian birth rates has been accompanied by an increase in the Russian mortality rate.

Over the four-plus decades between 1961-62 and 2003, life expectancy at birth in Russia fell by nearly five years for males; it also declined for females, although just slightly, making for an overall drop in life expectancy of nearly three years over this four-decade span. Age-standardized mortality rates cast an even grimmer light on Russia's continuing health crisis: Between the mid 1960s and the start of the twenty-first century, these rates underwent a long and uneven rise, climbing by over 15 percent for women and over 40 percent for men.

Russia's upswing in mortality was especially concentrated among its working-age population, and here the upsurge in death rates was utterly breathtaking. Over the three decades between 1970–71 and 2001, for example, every female cohort between the ages of 20 and 59 suffered at least a 30 percent increase in death rates; for men between the ages of 40 and 59, the corresponding figures uniformly reached, and some cases exceeded, 60 percent.

Russia's political class has not ignored the increasingly desperate situation. Mr. Zhirinovsky's entho-nationalism is a symptom of the spiraling concern among the Russian people about their future as a nation and a distinct ethnic and cultural entity.

To the extent that Russian policy makers have concerned themselves with the country's negative natural increase problem, they have focused almost entirely upon the birth rate—and how to raise it. Not surprisingly, this pro-natalist impulse has foundered on the shoals of finance. In plain terms, serious pro-natalism is an expensive business, especially when the potential parents-to-be are educated, urbanized women accustomed to careers with paid recompense. To induce a serious and sustained increase in childbearing, a government under such circumstances must be prepared to get into the business of hiring women to be mothers—and this is a proposition that could make the funding of a national pension system look like pin money by comparison. Consequently, Russia's government has concentrated most of its pro-natalist efforts on attempting to "talk the birth rate up"—and as a century of experience with such official chatter in Western countries will attest, that gambit is almost always utterly ineffectual.

Attempt by governments to increase fertility date back to Caesar Augustus at least, and inevitably prove useless. However, the concern of Russian politicians is understandable. The consequences of Russia's demographic timebomb should prompt panic in the halls of the Kremlin.

In the short run, the collapse of Russian fertility may have little practical (as opposed to psychological) import for daily life or affairs of state. If, however, extreme subreplacement fertility persists, current and continued childbearing patterns would directly shape the Russian future. In some nontrivial respects, it could materially limit Russian national options. In the decades immediately ahead, for example, Russia looks set to contend with a sharp fall-off in the nation's youth population. Between 1975 and 2000, for example, the number of young men aged 15 to 24 ranged between 10 million and 13 million—but by 2025, in current UNPD projections, the total will be down to barely 6 million. Those figures would imply a 45 percent decrease between 2000 and 2025 in the size of this pivotal population group—as compared with a projected 15 percent decline in Russia's overall population.

The military implications of the envisioned disproportionate shrinkage of the age group from which the Russian army draws its manpower are obvious enough. But there would also be serious economic and social reverberations. With fewer young people rising to replace older retirees, the question of improving (or perhaps maintaining) the average level of skills and qualifications in the economically active population would become that much more pressing. And since younger people the world over tend to be disposed toward, and associated with, innovation and entrepreneurial risk-taking, a declining younger population could have intangible, but real, consequences.

The decline in Russia's demographic and the societal and cultural chaos now spreading throughout the country are mirrored in the ranks of Russia's armed forces.

Russia's top military prosecutor has shocked the country by revealing that 46 soldiers - the equivalent of an average platoon - died last week for non-combat related reasons.

Eight of the soldiers committed suicide and several had to be shot by comrades to halt drunken and violent rampages. There were two attempted suicides.

Russians have long known that their armed forces are ravaged by appalling brutality, crime and bullying but these revelations from General Alexander Savenkov have hit home particularly hard.

His outburst has also been interpreted as a damaging and personal attack on the Defence Minister, Sergey Ivanov, who is a hot favourite to succeed President Vladimir Putin in 2008.

Mr Ivanov has claimed the number of suicides, accidental deaths and murders in the army is decreasing but General Savenkov stated the opposite. An expanded meeting of the country's military prosecutors is to be held today in Moscow to try and understand why so many soldiers are dying off the battlefield.

"Without exaggerating you can call that quantity of peacetime deaths [46] a catastrophe," noted the daily Novy Izvestia. It quoted Veronika Marchenko, the chairwoman of the Mothers' Rights Group, which lobbies for better conditions in the army, as expressing little surprise that 46 had died in one week. "Last week does not differ from any of the other 52 which preceded it," she said. "They were exactly the same."
Of course, Russian military service differs greatly from that in most Western nations. The culture of compulsory military service, combined with Russia's notorious alcohol-abuse problems makes for a potent cauldron of discontent.

Military service is obligatory and lasts two years. First-year recruits are usually bullied by the second year ones who are known as "deds", or grandfathers.

The bullying is sometimes so mentally and physically harsh that many take their own lives. Earlier this year four soldiers hanged themselves on the branch of a tree near their barracks. What drove them to such extreme lengths remains unclear.

According to official figures, 376 soldiers died for non-combat reasons between January and May of this year, of which 99 were suicides. Last year the total number was 954 of which 246 took their own lives.

The unofficial figures, however, are thought to be much higher.


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