In Russia, a Demographic Crisis and Worries for Nation's Future

The country's plunging population crisis -- low birth rates and high death rates -- has serious implications for the future of the world's largest nation

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A woman holds a child in Barnaul / Reuters

Following Vladmir Putin's decision that he will run again for President of the Russian Federation next March, there are questions about continuity or change in economic reform, political reform, weapons control, U.S.-Russian relations, and a host of other issues.

But there will surely be one constant: Putin's concern about arresting the demographic decline of Russia -- especially of Russia's working-age males -- which has significant implications for Russian society, economy, and standing in the world.

This issue received global media attention in 2006, when then-President Putin said in his state of the nation address that "The most urgent problem facing Russia is demographic crisis." In his recent speech to his party, United Russia, in which he and current President Dmitry Medvedev said they would swap positions next year, Prime Minister Putin emphasized again the importance of stopping Russian depopulation, while claiming that there had been progress in the past five years. This issue is the classic "under the water" part of the Russian iceberg, which will shape the nation's direction for years to come.

To a non-expert like me, the Russian demographic story is fascinating, not just because of its national and geopolitical implications but because it is about both low birth rates and high death rates. Male life expectancy in Russia today is approximately 60 years, or at least 15 years less than in most industrialized nations. It has been oft-remarked that many developed nations now have declining birth rates because of job opportunities for women. But Russia's low birth rates are due to economic problems, and together with high death rates caused by poor health, these factors make Russian's demographic problems striking. Together these have led to a decline in Russian population from 148.6 million in 1993 after the breakup of the Soviet Union, to 146 million at the beginning of the 21st century, to somewhere bewteen 139 and 143 million today.

The UN Population Division estimated several years ago that Russian population in the year 2025 -- one year after President Putin would complete two six-year terms -- would continue to decline dramatically, settling in a range from 121 million to 136 million. The U.S. Census Bureau, in another study several years old, estimated that the Russian population would be 128 million in that year. However, according to published reports, Russian state statistical authorities say that the 2025 population could be in the high 130 millions (lower than present, but not much lower), while the Ministry of Economic Development optimistically states (hopes) that population decline will stop in about 10 years and return to current levels by 2025.

Whatever the disparities in estimates about Russia's future population, there is no question about the facts that existed in 2006 when Putin addressed the demographic crisis in his state of the nation speech. These are the benchmarks from which improvements are measured. At that time:

    • 16 Russians died for every 10.4 babies born, with population declining by 700,000 people a year.
    • Women on average had 1.34 babies during their lifetime, far below the 2.1 babies per woman considered the replacement rate in industrial societies (the rate to keep population stable) and far below the rate of 2.63 children per woman in 1958.
    • Males 16 years old had only a 50 percent chance of living past 60.
    • In the 15 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there had been 10 million more deaths than births in the Russian Federation.

    The causes of the alarming death rate include heart disease, accidents, violence, and suicide -- often associated with heavy, sometimes binge, drinking. Smoking rates are among the highest in the world (twice as high as in U.S.). Environmental conditions, especially in the work place, are often poor. Diet is harmful. And the quality of the health care system is often low. Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographic expert at the American Enterprise Institute and senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research, has said that with high rates of injuries and violence, Russia looks liked like a Sub-Saharan conflict or post-conflict society, not a middle class society at peace.

    Putin's policy initiatives in 2006 were aimed at increasing the average birth rate by providing incentives and subsidies. These included increasing cash grants for more children, extended maternity leave benefits, and enhanced day care services. The result appears to be an increase in the birth rate from 1.34 to 1.42, an improvement to be sure, but still significantly below the 2.1 replacement rate required to keep the population stable. Demographers also note that increases in per woman birth rates may have limited impact in the future because there will be fewer women of child-bearing age due to low fertility rates in prior years going back to the early 1990s.

    Presented by

    Ben W. Heineman Jr.

    Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.

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