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Russia Losing Battle in Population Growth to Disease, Low Birth Rates


No country faces as severe a population decline as Russia. Disease, accidental death, and a decline in healthy newborns are to blame. In fact, deaths in Russia outnumber births, and most of those who die are in the 20-49 age group, the most productive segment of the population. Leading experts on the subject say such a population decline has a devastating impact on the workforce, military recruitment and family formation.

According to the most recent forecasts, Russia's population of 143 million people is expected to decrease by 22 percent between now and the year 2050. If the figures are borne out, Russia could lose up to 42 percent of its active working population.

The decline is being fueled primarily by two things: low birth rates, with Russian women increasingly choosing work over motherhood, and increased death rates among a rapidly aging population.

The decline has many people worried that Russia may some day face the grim reality of not having enough young men to serve in the army, or young women to work in hospitals, local government, or schools. There is also concern about economic collapse, with many people, like Boris Prokhorov, the Director of Russia's Laboratory for National Health, who believes that a country's demographic profile and its economy are intrinsically linked.

Prokhorov says the number of people who get sick in Russia is comparable to that of the United States, but in Russia, he says, people die10 to 12 years earlier of the same illnesses. He connects that trend to the fact that Russia has, in his view, a dilapidated health care system.

Prokhorov says millions of Russians still live near or below the poverty line, making applying to doctors for anything resembling preventive health care virtually non-existent. In addition, he says Russia is the indisputable champion in deaths caused by external factors like alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and violence. It is these vices, along with Russia's booming HIV/AIDS infection rates, among the highest in the world, that are taking ever greater numbers of young Russians' lives.

Factor in Russia's long-standing problem with tuberculosis and Prokhorov says you've got a wholesale collection of negatives working to bring population numbers down.

During his annual press conference last month in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin was asked what his government was doing to combat the problems of population decline in Russia. He replied by noting recent steps to offer lump-sum payments of nearly $300 to new parents, as well as ordering a slight increase in monthly child support payments. Mr. Putin acknowledged these were just small steps. Still, he said he was confident Russian officials are moving in the right direction.

The Russian president also rejected calls to abolish Russia's state pension fund and return to a more Soviet-style system, whereby the elderly would rely on their children, rather than the state, for essential support.

President Putin says Russia will never abandon the pension system. Instead, he says, his government is looking at ways to make it better, especially the question of how to increase today's contributions to the fund so that it can keep up with the expected rise in demand for payouts, with nearly 20 percent of the Russian population now 60 years of age or older.

Others in the government and academia have pinned their hopes of stemming Russia's population decline on increased migration into Russia. Specifically, they would like to see the legal, regulated migration of well-educated Russians and Russian speakers from other former Soviet States to regions in Russia where they are deemed most needed.

There was a brief flurry of such migration after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the trend was short-lived.

Analyst Olga Kyrshtanovskaya, who heads the Center for the Study of Russia's Elite, supports the government's plan to start a long-term program this year to try to encourage Russian immigrants back to Russia as a way to counter population loss.

Kyrshtanovskaya says the government is taking much-needed steps to restore pride in all things Russian as a first step to reposition Russia as a possible good place to emigrate. But others, like Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Nemtsev, say that encouraging immigrants to return to Russia could cause more harm than good.

Nemtsev says returning immigrants, especially those of differing ethnic and religious backgrounds can sometimes stoke additional tensions in his view, especially in bigger cities where competition for jobs and housing is fierce.

Anatoly Vishnevsky, Director of the Center for Demography and Human Ecology, is also against using immigration as a way to try to solve Russia's shrinking population problem. Vishnevsky says there are not enough potential Russian immigrants to repatriate in order to solve the huge projected deficits in Russia's population by mid-century.

Secondly, he says it is hard for him to imagine that all these people would suddenly decide to repatriate to Russia, after having already made a new life elsewhere. Even if they did, Vishnevsky adds, Russia will still have to deal with its rising death rates and declining births.