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Russia Threatened by Plummeting Population

Far more Russians are dying at a relatively young age than babies are being born to replace them. The result is a precipitous population decline that threatens Russia's economic well-being and perhaps even the ability to safeguard its huge territory. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky examines some of the reasons and consequences of the Russian demographic crisis.

The population of Russia has been falling an average of 700,000 people each year since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 16 years ago. Russian women can expect to live until 73, but the average life expectancy of men is 59, about a dozen years less than their counterparts in Western Europe.

Larissa Ilgova lost her husband to liver disease. She says many of her friends are dying young. "I have many friends and they're all dying at a young age - 47, 48, 50, 60," she says. "A lot."

Health experts say reasons for so many premature deaths in Russia include heart disease, poor diet, hard work, smoking, and above all, alcoholism.

But Russian demographer Igor Beloborodov says alcoholism is the symptom of a larger problem - a spiritual malaise among the general population.

He says this malaise does not afflict Russia's religious communities, noting their members live longer and have more children than average, though they are not necessarily wealthier.

"This is most evident among the devout Orthodox [Christian], members of Russia's largest religious faith," Beloborodov said. "There are also many children born to Muslims, and the same goes for Buddhists. People who have preserved a certain moral code and a positive attitude toward family values demonstrate different demographic and reproductive tendencies."

Beloborodov says 75 years of atheism and economic mismanagement by communists devastated not only Russia's spiritual and material foundations, but also the family structure. He says the communist system created what he calls "demographic time bombs" that continue to explode in Russia years after the Soviet collapse in 1991. These include the legalization of abortions, prohibition of private property and inheritance rights, and making a mother's service to communism more rewarding than caring for her children.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently called for measures to increase Russian life expectancy to 75 by the year 2020. But demographer Beloborodov questions whether the problem can be solved in a mere 12 years. "I think the approach to the problem - lowering the death rate but ignoring the birth rate - is wrong," he said. "It won't solve anything. It would only guarantee an older population. In other words, the rate of aging would accelerate, but the burden on the working-age population would increase. Even now, our pension system is in a state of crisis."

The demographer says more working-age Russians are needed not only to support retirees, but also to develop the economy and maintain a viable army.

Some analysts also fear the Chinese could fill a vacuum created by a particularly acute loss of people in Russia's Far East.

Vladimir Myasnikov, one of Russia's foremost China experts, disagrees. He says not many people are needed to hold the area. "East of the Urals, normal human living conditions exist only along a very thin strip running along the Chinese border. There is permafrost North of some local mountain ranges, where temperatures reach as low as 50 below zero centigrade. There are similar regions in Canada, which are virtually empty."

Russia has as many as 12 million immigrants, most of them illegal, to make up for Russia's ever-growing labor shortage. Some immigrants have been attacked and even killed by xenophobic Russians who resent the newcomers as intruders. Despite an slight increase in number of births last year, the United Nations predicts the country's population will continue to plummet from the current 141 million to less than 100 million by mid-century.