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Russia Faces Population Crisis

The Russian government is looking for ways to stop a severe population decline in the country, which has reportedly reached record levels. The demographic crisis, which began in 1993, has only deepened despite Russia's booming economy and high revenues from the sale of oil. Last year alone, the Russian population shrank by more than half a million people. As VOA's Jim Bertel reports, the Russian government is hoping to reverse the trend.

If the Russian population continues to decline at its current rate, in just 25 years the world's largest country will be inhabited by fewer people than currently live in Japan. Experts warn that the number of Russians -- currently 142 million -- could shrink by 20 million by the year 2030.

Russian men are especially at risk as their average life expectancy is now just 58 --16 years less than their counterparts in Western Europe, and a full 14 years less than Russian women. Bad lifestyle habits, like excessive smoking and drinking, coupled with accidents and suicides are the main killers.

Russia's Minister of Health and Social Development, Mikhail Zurabov, said Russians traditionally don't take care of their health and that creates a major problem for health officials. "Unfortunately, a healthy lifestyle is not the norm here. Alcoholism, smoking and many other things create a lot of serious problems. So in an effort to resolve this, we set ourselves what looked like a very simple task. We wanted to make sure that the citizens of the Russian Federation visit their doctors once every two years. But we can't even make people do simple things like that."

And although a record number of people in Russia were reportedly married last year, many are in no rush to start families, mostly for financial reasons.

And even those who do so take a serious risk. According to recent figures, seven in every 10 Russian newborns suffer from health disorders and every 12th baby is born underweight.

If this demographic trend continues, experts say the Russian economy is set to lose $400 billion U.S. in the next two decades and the number of economically active Russians will shrink by 3.6 million people in the next five years.

Zhanna Zaenchkovskaya, who heads the Center for Migration Studies in Moscow, says the consequences of the demographic crisis could be devastating for the Russian economy. “From the middle of this year a natural decrease in the Russian workforce will begin. And in Russia now, even before this natural decrease, we had a deficit of around one million job vacancies. This will grow like a snowball. Immigration will be the only solution in such a situation."

In an effort to attract more migrants, Russian President Vladimir Putin formed a special commission to encourage citizens of the former Soviet Union living in neighboring countries to move to Russia. It is expected to submit a formal plan to the Kremlin by June the first.

But even if the state program is successful, critics believe there are only five million Russians outside the country potentially willing to move back. This, they say, might solve the problem for the next six to seven years, but will not provide a long-term solution to Russia's population crisis.