Thursday, May 11, 2006

Russia's Dwindling Future

Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised his Russian audience and international analysts by failing to concentrate on foreign policy in his address to the nation this year. Instead, Putin warned Russians of the greatest threat to the nation’s long-term, strength, security and very viability: it’s falling birthrate.

"Let's talk about the most acute problem facing Russia - demography," he said. "The number of our citizens shrinks by an average of 700,000 people each year."

Russia’s demographic decline is being propelled from both ends of the issue. Not only are Russians not having enough children to replace themselves, they are also , dying much younger than the citizens of other developed nations.

Statistically, a baby boy born in Russia today is unlikely to see his 60th birthday.

Moreover, he is likely to die from lifestyle-related diseases considered preventable in the West.

Though many leftists would ascribe the decline in average Russian health and life-expectancy to the fall of communism and the years of corruption and decay that followed, the truth is that Russia’s life-expectancy began slipping behind the West’s in the 1960s.

These headline grabbing facts appear to reflect complicated, longer-term trends.

Many Russian politicians say the country's political and social upheavals are to blame.

It is certainly true that millions of Russians were thrown into poverty by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But many western demographers say there is no specifically Russian phenomenon, just a continuation of trends that began in the country in the 1960s.

An increasing gap between the West and the then-USSR in terms of life expectancies had been noted 40 years ago.

Putin offered a variety of solutions to Russia’s demographic decline that would sound familiar to any historian.

President Putin promised financial incentives for those who want to have bigger families.

From next year, the state will give families 1,500 roubles ($55) a month if they have one baby and twice that for a second child. Average wages are below $100 a week.

The initial response to the new proposals has been mixed. President Putin received loud applause from his audience in the Marble Hall of the Kremlin.

Others watching the speech questioned whether the sum would really make much of a difference, especially in Moscow.

"He doesn't go in the shops, so he doesn't know the prices," suggested one unimpressed analyst. President Putin conceded that the problem was more than simply financial.

"The problem of low birth rates cannot be resolved without a general change in the attitude of our society towards the issue of family and family values," the Russian president warned.

Attempting to use financial incentives to encourage larger families (or legal penalties against childlessness) dates back at least to Augustus Caesar and has historically failed to remedy the problem. Russia suffers from the near fatal cultural damage of seven decades of communism, but its baby bust is a problem it shares with its far wealthier, economically prosperous Western counterparts. In fact, birth rates are plunging across the developed world, from Asia to Europe to Australia. Even in the US, the birthrate remains barely above replacement, and only because immigration from third world nations keeps the birthrate artificially high.

Russia’s population decline has been on the minds of Russian leaders for some time. Last year, radical nationalist (and frequent nutcase) Vladimir Zhirinovsky, went on a tirade about Russian women marrying Western men and leaving the country. Zhirinovsky proffered legislation to punish such women and prevent them from escaping the country with foreign husbands. Of course, Zhirinovsky failed to propose any policies that would induce Russian women to remain in Russia, which is a large part of the problem.

For Russians, falling birthrates are a deadly serious matter. Russian history is an unending tale of bloody foreign invasions from every direction. Russians never forget this. Currently, Russia is bordered by NATO (US might) on the west, a rising China on the east and fanatical Islam to the south. Russians have little reason to feel secure, even with their nuclear stockpile (a huge financial burden to the destitute state). There is security in having numbers strong enough to man a powerful army – one capable of defending the state. As Russia's population declines, its ability to defend itself will decline with it. That will make Russia seem increasingly weak to its potentially aggressive neighbors. Moscow can only be nervous when it glances to the east and south, and bitter and envious when it looks westward.


At 5:50 PM , Blogger Dennis Dale said...

Good post, but none of the links are working.

At 4:18 AM , Blogger Pytheas said...

Thank you. Links fixed.

Such are the frustrations of posting from a old Mac with an outdated OS and browser.


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