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Russia's Demographic Timebomb

Russia is experiencing an unprecedented demographic crisis, according to a prominent American population expert. The country’s dwindling population could make it hard for Moscow to implement its economic and diplomatic agendas in the decades to come.

Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), noted that while many countries in Europe and elsewhere are grappling with the twin dilemmas of aging populations and declining birth rates, Russia is experiencing a unique phenomenon – an extremely high mortality rate for a relatively developed country.

“Russia has taken us where no man has gone before,” Eberstadt observed during a recent presentation of his book, Russia's Peacetime Demographic Crisis: Dimensions, Causes, Implications. The book was published in the spring.

Russia’s fertility rate has declined dramatically since the end of the Communist era and is now considerably below replacement level. Compounding that problem is the premature mortality rate, which resembles those found in impoverished developing countries, not those with a moderately wealthy, well-educated population.

Life expectancy among Russians rose rapidly in the 1950s and early 1960s, stalled in the mid-1960s, and then experienced a sharp decline after 1990. Today, life expectancy at birth for an average Russian male is roughly 62 years. For a female it is 72.

Eberstadt, whose presentation was hosted by AEI in Washington, DC, readily acknowledged that neither he nor standard social science theory could fully explain Russia’s catastrophe. Russia has followed a uniquely morbid path.

Russians suffer from high rates of AIDS and other infectious diseases, but these only account for a small percent of deaths. A more serious problem arises from Russians’ cardiovascular disease rate, which is roughly four times higher than the population-weighted rates in Western European countries. Russians also suffer from violent deaths (injuries, murders, etc.) to an extraordinarily high degree for a country at peace and with such a high level of socioeconomic development. But again this aberration only accounts for a small number of Russia’s almost 7 million excess deaths since 1991.

Eberstadt rejected the obvious explanation that the trauma associated with the 1991 Soviet collapse was a major cause of excess deaths. He noted that Central European countries rapidly recovered and improved on their Communist-era life expectancies, while Western countries that suffered major economic losses during the Great Depression did not experience a Russian-style population catastrophe.

“Unfortunately, the Russian Federation is no stranger to bouts of depopulation,” Eberstadt noted. Yet the current crisis differs from the three previous declines since the early 1900s by not occurring during a time of war or famine. In the past, Russia quickly rebounded from its population dips. It remains unclear when the current decline will end.

Whatever the cause, Russia’s eroding human resource base will challenge Moscow’s ability to achieve its domestic and foreign-policy priorities. According to Eberstadt, Russia’s demographic crisis “has demonstrable and grievous humanitarian costs and manifestly adverse economic implications.” In addition, the Russian military will have difficulty finding soldiers, while Moscow’s hold over the resource-rich but people-poor Russian Far East will continue to decline.

Although there have been some modest improvements in some demographic trends over the last few years, Eberstadt thinks matters might take another alarming turn in the not-so-distant future. The number of future mothers is declining, the average Russian is aging, and the increase in disease and deaths has been greatest among the working age population. As a result, the labor force has shrunk more rapidly than the population as a whole, reducing Russia’s economic growth prospects for years to come.

By. Richard Weitz

Originally published by EurasiaNet.org




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  • Anonymous on October 30 2010 said:
    The great Russian heart of nihilism was set aside temporarily for the Soviet Revolution and Crusade of World Conquest. After the failure of that Revolution and Crusade, Russia's heart of nihilism has returned, and dominates the culture.That is why there will be no bounce-back from this demographic crisis. Even when confronting growing antipathy on every border but the Arctic Ocean, Russia cannot rouse itself to meet its internal and external challenge.
  • Anonymous on October 31 2010 said:
    It is not a good news when ever we experience a human decline but I believe the nature will balance by it’s self and land will be occupied one way or another, Europe and Africa are declining but the Asians are growing beyond the world capacity to host, so that is good news to the mankind
  • Anonymous on November 01 2010 said:
    I believe in Russia. I spent six years in the American army, most of it in the infantry and artillery, training to fight the Russians in some crazy Third World War, although I knew every minute of that six years that basically the Russians were not interested in a war with the US. Why should they be? After all, it was Russia and the US that stopped Hitler.Of course, for many years Russian leaders were often twisted on vodka, so mistakes could have been made, but as long as people like Putin and Medvedev are calling the shots, good things can happen.And the odds are that they will happen...though not tomorrow.
  • Anonymous on November 02 2010 said:
    Russia spent her first 300 years 'sleepimg' in the forests of Northern Russia under the Mongol yoke. then she spent the next 300 years sleeping under the Tsars, with some territorial expansion. When roused by invasion or revolution she can be formidable, but otherwise is generally somnolent. Her geographical expansion has never quite been matched by expansion of the 'Russian' population, even in the Soviet era. For Russia to try to rouse herself without violent upheavel, war or revolution will be a new experience. She hasn't done it before. She, her leaders may have to find some 'divine inspiration' to cure her of her peacetime slumber and declime and push her forward to an expanding youthful population. I wish them success.
  • Anonymous on November 04 2010 said:
    Very intelligent observation, Philip. Russia has gone through some bad spells I suppose, since I know very little about that country, and am not particularly interested, but I know one thing. If the Russian leadership keeps its eyes on the ball, and does a few things right, they can show the world a few things.One of the right things is to keep the compulsory military service, and reform the Russian army. Medvedev has apparently began that program. And note, I'm not talking about reforming it to to fight a third world war, but to show young men that there is something in the world besides trashy TV shows of the kind they have in the Big PX.Changes in Russia will not come tomorrow, but if they keep people like Putin and Medvedev in the government, they might just go all the way in the coming decade.

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