Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia Faces Population Dilemma


The Russian Federation is undergoing a major demographic transformation. Its overall population is dropping by at least 700-thousand people a year, while its Muslim population has been increasing an average of four percent per year.

According to United Nations estimates, Russia's population of about 140 million could fall by a third by 2050. Many experts say a combination of declining birthrates among ethnic Russians and a population explosion in the Muslim community could lead to a Muslim majority in the Russian Federation by mid-century.

Paul Goble, a researcher at the University of Tartu in Estonia and author of a forthcoming book on Islam in Russia, says the past decade has marked a major demographic shift in the country.

"There are more Muslims in Moscow than in Paris. There are between two-and-a-half and three million Muslims in Moscow. The second largest group in Moscow, for example, is Azerbaijanis -- roughly a million. There are a million to a million-and-a-quarter Muslims in St. Petersburg. There are Muslims in places they have never been before like Karelia, Kamchatka and Sakhalin," says Goble.

The trend is partly due to very high mortality rates among ethnic Russians between the ages of 18 and 55. "Russian adult males in the workforce are dying at rates that look like a war zone rather than like a modern society," says Goble.

"Alcoholism, disease, industrial accidents are just staggeringly high," says Goble. “What that's doing is that the number of ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation is currently declining by more than a million a year. The only reason the Russian government has been able to portray the decline as less than that is they don't say that it is because you have a surplus of the Muslim nationalities each year."

Tense Histories

Muslims in Russia live in two broad geographical regions -- the Volga River basin, which lies in the center of the Russian Federation, and the North Caucasus.

Many analysts note that Muslims in the Volga region have been Russian citizens for centuries and are generally religious moderates. But things are different in the North Caucasus, especially in Chechnya, which has resisted traditionally the Russian state. Chechen Muslims, most analysts contend, follow a militant version of Islam.

According to some experts, including David Satter of the Hudson Institute here in Washington, many ethnic Russians are also wary of the influx of Muslims from former Soviet republics.

"The presence of people from the former Soviet republics, who a new generation of Russian's don't remember as having been citizens of the same country and shared the same system for so many years, are subject to attacks in Russian cities -- particularly in St. Petersburg, Voronezh and Moscow,” says Satter.

Other experts note that Orthodox Christian Russians and other non-Muslim ethnic groups that live in communities with Muslim majorities are also subjected to increasing pressure.

Mikhail Delyagin a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center says there have been ethnic purges of non-Muslims in several Russian regions. "And in several areas it's going on right now. The non-Muslim population is being driven out of those areas. I think this tendency is possible to suppress. It would require efforts on the part of the government, in the first place for the development of the regions and for integration," says Delyagin.

But Peter Reddaway of the George Washington University says the Russian government has begun to crackdown on Islamic activism with laws defending Orthodox Christianity. And it has been lenient with newly emerged anti-immigration groups.

"In the last few years, the Putin administration has tried to develop a quasi-nationalist ideology. And it has increasingly tolerated extreme nationalists and xenophobic groups in Russia," says Reddaway. "The alienation of Russia's Muslims from the Russian state so far has been mainly limited to the North Caucasus and is connected with the Chechnya war of the last 13 years or so. But that alienation is starting to spread to other Muslim parts of Russia."

Long-Term Implications

According to Reddaway, radicalized Muslims inside and outside of Russia are closely watching the Kremlin's moves. "To think that the semi-immunity Russia has had from the passions of Muslim fundamentalism will continue would be very misguided. Every now and then, Muslim fundamentalists look at Russia, they look at Chechnya and they sometimes take action. I think that in the future, they will increasingly look at Russia," says Reddaway.

Some analysts argue that Russia's demographic transformation could have long-term international implications and pose a serious challenge for the West. Researcher Paul Goble of the University of Tartu is concerned that Islamic radicals could gain a political foothold in Russia once Muslims become a majority.

"I think it matters profoundly how the Muslim community of the Russian Federation views what we [i.e., the West] do and views what the ethnic Russians do before they are in that majoritarian position. People talk about the Muslim extremists getting the bomb [i.e., nuclear weapons]. Well, in this case, you could have the Muslims getting a lot of bombs all at once. If that doesn't frighten people, it should. How we react to this community now and over the next several decades will define in many ways how that community will react to us in the future," says Goble.

He and many other experts say the West should encourage the Kremlin to integrate Muslims into Russian society and ensure that their religious and human rights are respected. Failure to do so, they warn, will likely lead the Russian Federation to political instability.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.