Staunton, January 8 – It has long been a staple of Russian commentaries to minimize that country’s demographic decline by pointing to the falling populations in neighboring countries --and especially in the three Baltic states -- but that attention is now backfiring because ethnic Russians in these states are declining in number faster than the titular nations.
Not only does that pattern highlight the general problems of the Russian nation: Both at home and abroad, ethnic Russians are a rapidly aging and thus declining population, with birthrates low and falling and with adult male mortality rates higher than almost anywhere in the world, including in war zones.
Consequently, when Russian outlets do pick up the issue of demographic problems in the Baltic countries, they frequently end by highlighted the even greater demographic problems of the Russian nation. One such example is provided today in an article on the Rubaltic.ru site, an outlet that does everything it can to play up Baltic rather than Russian difficulties.
The portal’s Andrey Solopenko interviews Peteris Zverdinsh, a demographer at Riga’s Latvian State University, and presents the results under the headline “Before 2020, It Will be Impossible to Stop the Depopulation of Latvia” (rubaltic.ru/article/politika-i-obshchestvo/060116-depopulyatsiyu-latvii/).
There were approximately 2.7 million people in Latvia in 1991. Now, there are fewer than two million. And Zvidrinsh reports that some Europeans now project that by mid-century, that Baltic country will have a population of 1.45 million, even fewer than the 1.7-1.8 million he and other demographers had been predicting only recently.
In recent years, he notes, Latvia has had some success in boosting the fertility rate – it now stands at 1.65, below replacement but higher than in Russia and many other countries – and has increased life expectancy especially among men. Its population decline thus reflects primarily outmigration but that has fallen and will continue to do so.
Since 1991, Latvia has lost on average a total of 17,200 people, a figure that is declining even now; and he projects that “after 2030, Latvia can even expect a certain amount of growth.” That will be even more likely if the Latvian government adopts pro-natalist and related health policies, he says.
The decline in the Latvian population varies among the country’s regions, Zverdinsh says. The biggest declines have been in Latgale, and there has been much growth in the region around Riga. The most disturbing figures are from small settlements which are in some cases at risk of disappearing altogether.
Population decline has hit “all ethnic groups without exception,” the demographer continues. It had been true that the Roma were an exception, but now even they follow the pattern observed in other groups. Nonetheless, some groups are doing worse than others, with Latvians doing much better than ethnic Russians.
There are several reasons for this: they have a younger age structure than do the Russians and thus are having more children; they are not leaving in as large percentage terms as are Russians and other Slavs, although Latvian outmigration is high as well; and they are gaining confidence in their identity as they become a larger share of the population.