Staunton, December 3 – In his message to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin proudly pointed to the increase from 1.7 to 1.78 children per 1,000 women, a figure still below replacement levels, as a triumph of his pro-natalist policies; but declines in the number of women of child-bearing age means Russia will soon have 300,000 fewer births than deaths each year.
That figure means that Russia will lose almost a million people in total population every three years unless it compensates for that natural decrease by dramatically increasing the number of gastarbeiters from Central Asia and the Caucasus living there, something polls show that most Russians vehemently oppose.
And while Putin celebrated the fact that the figure of 1.78 means that the Russian fertility rate is now higher than in Portugal and many other European countries, the Kremlin leader said nothing about the other part of this equation: Russia has higher mortality rates among men than any European country and many non-Western ones as well.
In a commentary for the Svobodnaya pressa portal, Aleksey Polubota in effect fact checks the Russian president by providing a broader set of data that shows a far less bright picture than the one Putin sought to paint and that his government-controlled media are promoting (svpressa.ru/society/article/161859/).
He notes that in October, the number of births fell by 11 percent from a year earlier, and that in two other months, the decline had equaled eight percent. And he noted that the number of marriages had fallen by 13 percent over the first ten months of 2016. He argues this makes further declines in the number of children per woman likely.
Polubota spoke with two analysts, one, Yury Krupnov, a demographer at the Moscow Institute of Demography, Migration, and Regional Development,who shares his own view that Russia is on the way to a demographic collapse, and a second, Vladimir Timakov of the Russian Popular Assembly, which is close to the Kremlin, who has a rosier view of the current situation and the future.
Krupnov said that indeed there had been a slight uptick in fertility rates this year as Putin said but argued that “already next year, there will be a serious decline in fertility in Russia.” By the middle of the 2020s, he predicted, Russia will be losing “approximately 300,000 people a year.”
“It is an interesting question,” he suggested, as to how Russia’s leaders will explain that: “By the machinations of a new ‘Obama’ perhaps?” Russia needs to face up to the fact that it is in the midst of “a demographic catastrophe” in which the ethnic Russians will lose the most and in which “the very existence of the country at least in its current borders will be threatened.”
Timakov disagreed. He said that demography seldom follows the projections people make for very long, that increases in mortality or declines in fertility that many see pointing to disaster often change after a short time. And consequently, he said, he doesn’t sense that the current economic crisis will have serious long-term demographic consequences.
In response to the 2008 crisis, Catholic Europeans cut back in the number of children they had, but in Orthodox Eastern Europe, including Russia, that didn’t happen because people in that region are “used to more serious shocks than the West Europeans are and take them in stride.”
He also disagreed with the idea that the balance between ethnic Russians and non-Russians is shifting against the latter. According to him, Russian regions and regions close to Russia’s in culture are responsible for most of the population growth while the non-Russians in the North Caucasus are seeing their fertility rates fall to Russian levels.