Russia’s Population Dilemma: Solve it, or become “Just Another Nation”
by Ramtanu Maitra on 04 Mar 2012 2 Comments

In an article published on his website, Russia’s presidential hopeful and present premier, Vladimir Putin, hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “In a global sense we are facing the risk of turning into an ‘empty space’ whose fate will not be decided by us.” If the authorities do nothing to combat the demographic crisis, Putin said, the country’s population would fall from the present level of 154 million to 107 million by 2050. The United Nations says Russia’s population is shrinking by an average of 700,000 people a year, and it could fall to less than 100 million by the middle of the century (from 149 million today).


Territorially, Russia is a vast nation and has been a world power throughout modern history. It is also one of the major Eurasian nations bordering the well-populated and fast-rising China and has close relations with India, the other most populous nation in Asia. Together these three — with Japan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia — constitute the main population centers in the Eurasian landmass. Russia is also connected by land to the European and Central Asian nations. If one considers the Eurasian landmass, taking into account Central Asia and Afghanistan, this area provides habitation to almost 4 billion people, or two-thirds of world’s entire population.


Part of Eurasia: Victims of Colonials and Cold War


The Eurasian landmass has always been populous, but much of the landmass was brutalized by European colonialists during the 18th to the mid-20th century period. Following the end of colonial rule, the Cold War froze major transnational developmental efforts in this area. Nations pauperized by rapacious colonialists found the going hard. During the Cold War between Russia and the United States, both China and India went through cycles of poverty in the midst of their efforts to find a way to rebuild their nations. Japan, which remained beyond colonial reach, was virtually destroyed during World War II. Nonetheless, it recovered relatively quickly with American help and assistance.


With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the landscape began to change at a fast pace. Since then, China has rebuilt itself at a speed and with a determination that has surprised one and all. India has also begun to move forward and, with a large population and a huge pool of young people below the age of 25, has all the essentials of becoming a strong and prosperous nation. In the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan and Bangladesh are also brimming with young people, and a Eurasian development policy, if formulated and implemented, would propel these nations forward in no time.


However, there are problems. The principal problem is that neither China nor India, who have been moving ahead at a brisk pace during the last two decades, have ever been a world power. They remained isolated, mostly trying to meet their vast populations’ basic requirements. While the two countries’ support was sought by all of the cold warriors, they were never allowed to play the significant role that they deserved. That was the past.


Today, both China and India’s present, and surely their future, look much rosier. Yet their lack of a historical role as world or even regional powers inhibits both China and India from organizing effectively in the region. Once these two major nations achieve their basic economic and social stability, their next objective will be to integrate the region to make it economically and socially stable. For both, however, that will be a learning process and surely a daunting task.


To stabilize the huge Eurasian landmass, where almost 4 billion people live and many of them die long before fully utilizing their God-given capabilities, an overall developmental plan that may take 50 years to be fully executed needs to be adopted. Such a plan would include enhancement of the economic might of the populations in this area and provide the ingredients to keep these economic machines running for centuries to come. That involves boosting science and technology to improve manufacturing and production processes and to efficiently extract the natural reserves that will remain ingredients for keeping the vast manufacturing and industrial support activities going. It also means building the physical infrastructure, such as faster and more efficient mass transportation systems, throughout this vast land area; efficient generation of electrical power; development of a water distribution system that will make optimal use of abundant fresh surface and sub-soil water networks; and spreading and improving education, health care, and communication; among other things.


Why Russia?


The task is mighty and laborious. But the mightier task is to bring the process to fruition. Neither India nor China ever thought of such a development. The only nation with the capability to do this is Russia. It has always been a world power, and it has always played a role in world affairs. Besides, it has what very few other countries possess: a very high level of scientific depth. It also has a vast reservoir of natural resources in its almost-totally-frozen eastern part. Vast oil and gas deposits constitute Siberia's most valuable natural resources. The region has huge reserves of mineral resources, most notably coal, gold, copper, and iron ore. The Kuznetsk Basin in southwestern Siberia, generally referred to by Russians as the Kuzbas, contains about 600 billion metric tons of low-sulfur coking coal (coal used in steel production); the brown coal deposits of the Kansk-Achinsk Basin in south central Siberia are nearly twice that size. But it is Russian science that is the key.


In fact, Russian leaders have made known their intent to develop their vast eastern territory. In July 2010, Russia formally adopted a development strategy for Siberia through 2020 that focuses on four key areas: (1) public-private partnerships; (2) construction of new highways; (3) housing and social infrastructure; and (4) creation of tourism zones. Russian Minister of Regional Development Viktor Basargin expects that the cost of Siberia’s development will exceed 1.8 trillion rubles ($60 billion), with the bulk (1.5 trillion rubles) to be provided by private investors.


In a Nov. 12, 2010, blogpost on the website of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Middle East Institute scholar and former US Foreign Service officer David Mack commented on Russia’s development plan for Siberia, Eastern Promises: Russia’s Plan to Develop Siberia. Mack pointed out that public-private partnerships are how a majority of Siberia’s priority projects are going to be implemented. That means that the Russian government will build the infrastructure facilities, while private business assumes responsibility for setting up and running the industrial projects. For example, the Russian government has built the necessary infrastructure for the hydroelectric power plant in Boguchany and has allocated resources for railways, roads, and bridges to develop the Lower Angara territory. Vnesheconombank intends to partner this effort and lend 28.1 billion rubles for the plant’s completion.


Russia will host the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, the 24th annual gathering of APEC leaders, on Russky Island off the coast of Vladivostok. Moscow hopes the summit will usher in a surge in investment to bolster the pace of development. “APEC’s share in Russia’s foreign trade has increased now to reach 18.1 percent, including up to 16.6 percent in Russian exports,” Prime Minister Putin said at the 2011 APEC summit in Sydney, Australia.


No doubt, successful development of Siberia is contingent on the construction of new road infrastructure. When Putin opened the new Chita-Khabarovsk highway, he clearly stated that it was not the only project of importance. Putin noted the continued construction of bypass roads around Irkutsk and Novosibirsk, as well as plans to modernize major highways such as the Baikal, Yenisei, and Chuysky Trakt. To make Siberia an attractive place to live, construction of housing and social infrastructure is also a necessity, Mack reports. In addition, Moscow plans to develop four tourism areas in Siberia: the Altai Republic, the Altai Territory, Buryatia, and the Irkutsk Region.


Transportation Corridor


On Feb. 21, RT reported that Premier Putin’s close associate and CEO of the Russian Railways, Vladmir Yakunin, said that the country’s rail carrier is looking to expand its network far beyond the former Soviet Union by building joint services with Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. “Everyone is talking about land bridge. But land bridge is a terminology invented by us that means railway infrastructure providing services for customers in Europe and in Asia, mainly in China, through the territory of Russia or Kazakhstan,” Yakunin told RT.


Yakunin also pointed out that building cooperation with neighbors Belarus and Kazakhstan under the newly created Customs Union is at the top of Russian Railroads’ agenda. He addressed the financial part of the project, saying the company plans to attract investment to the tune of 400 billion rubles to realize the project with the Customs Union. “And if we have this kind of joint project between Russia, Kazakhstan, Europe, and possibly China, that will be the first sample of cooperation between Europe and the Eurasian continent,” Yakunin continued.


These are all ambitious projects. To execute them, over whatever length of time, Russia will need money in the form of cash or credit and manpower. It is likely that Russia will be able to generate the money needed, since the authorities at the highest level are keen on pushing these projects through.


On the other hand, despite all the cooperation from China and the “stan” countries that Putin and Yakunin are banking on, or hopeful of, the fact remains that Russia will need a massive influx of population within a fairly short period of time to develop its eastern part and build the Eurasian transportation corridor. Cities have to be built, infrastructure to provide logistics to these cities and build new ones has to be in place, and people have to be settled. It is almost a certainty that the vast majority of Muscovites and other urban Russians will not be keen to “Go East.” Since they do not have future generations to plan for, they will be most reticent to go through the process that would pitch them out onto a new frontier. It seems clear that if Russia does not address its population problem on a war footing, these development plans will stay on paper. Good intentions, alone, will not do.


This is the problem that has been half-heartedly addressed by Prime Minister Putin in his recent writings. He talks about providing incentives to couples to have more children (but many have no desire to have more children, and many others have crossed the child-bearing age to begin with) and about resettling some 500,000 Russians who have left the country for greener pastures. At best, these are highly optimistic and not really down-to-earth proposals. Natalya Zubarevich, director of regional programs at the Moscow-based Independent Institute of Social Policy and also a professor at Moscow State University, points out that an earlier resettlement program brought only 30,000 Russians back to the country.


Moreover, recent polls suggest that about 20 percent of Russians are thinking about emigrating, while among the young 18 to 35-year-old group (those with a higher fertility rate), the figure is closer to 40 percent. In fact, in just the last few years more than a million Russians have left the country — a level of emigration that, if left unchecked, could in the future prevent the Russian economy from functioning even at the present level.


The return of 30,000 Russians since 2006 did not make even the slightest dent in the problem the country faces because the demographic crisis is so severe that such solutions cannot be more than drops in a leaky bucket. As of 2006, when Putin addressed the population crisis in his state of the nation speech, the following startling statistics were made available.


* 16 Russians die for every 10.4 babies born, with population declining by 700,000 people a year.

* Women have 1.34 babies, on average, during their lifetime — far below the 2.1 babies per woman considered the replacement rate in industrial societies (the rate to keep population stable) and far below the rate of 2.63 children per woman in 1958.

* Males 16 years old have only a 50 percent chance of living past 60.


From 2006 to 2012, the demographic picture grows even bleaker. Russia’s death rate of 15 deaths per 1000 people per year is far higher than the world’s average of just under 9. The World Health Organization estimates that the life expectancy of Russian men is now at 59 years, while women’s life expectancy is about 72 years. The difference is primarily the result of high rates of alcoholism among males, WHO surmises.


Other Factors


Two other factors pose an additional threat to Russia’s demography. According to United Nations data, there are 2.5 million drug addicts and more than 5.1 million drug users in Russia. As one would expect, a large number of them are young and have destroyed their regenerative capabilities. The steep rise in drug addiction is the contribution of the now 10-year-old war conducted in Afghanistan by the United States and NATO, which has facilitated an explosion of opium/heroin production in Afghanistan. Banks around the world lack cash, and the drug money, collected in cash, is laundered through offshore institutions to show up “respectably” in London, Luxembourg, and New York banks, among other places. It also ravages youth around the world, including in Russia.


In addition, according to a Russian news source, there are more abortions than births in Russia. The online news source reported that in 2004, 1.6 million women had abortions in Russia while 1.5 million gave birth. In 2003, the BBC reported that Russia had, “13 terminations for every 10 live births.”


All of this points to the fact that “business as usual” in dealing with the population problem will get Moscow to nowhere. Russian leaders will have to think out of the box and address the immensity of this national crisis with clear eyes. What would such “out of the box” thinking entail?


What Russia requires now is to lay the ground for large-scale migration into the country. Moscow must realize that China and India, the two most populous nations in Eurasia, are moving ahead and themselves fear a shortage of skilled manpower in the years to come. Their current reservoir of manpower — which has benefitted the United States (and some European nations also experiencing a demographic decline) in recent decades (the benefit lies in the fact that the emigrants were educated at home and the host nations received finished products ready to be plugged into their economic machines) — will no longer be available in large numbers in the years to come. Some skilled Europeans, facing a devastated economic future in the Eurozone, may migrate to Russia. But since Europe’s demographic scene is almost as bad as that of Russia, the number of such migrants will be nominal.


The only answer to this difficult problem lies in opening the door to immigrants from around the world who seek a better future not so much for themselves, but for their children and the generations to come. They ought to become Russians, like those so-called “wretched of the earth” who left colonial Europe and came to the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries and contributed so massively in their new home. Natalya Zubarevich is absolutely correct when she says that only a huge wave of immigration can improve the demographic situation in Russia.


Economic planning on paper does not work unless vision is added to it. Simply put: Russia must solve its population problem or prepare to become “just another nation.”


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review 

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