Sunday, April 11, 2021

Almost a Third of Russians Will Be Elderly by 2030, Forcing Moscow to Change Course

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 8 – The combination of falling birthrates and lengthening life expectancies means that nine years from now, almost one in every three Russians will be elderly. While that percentage can be lowered by raising the retirement age again, Russia will be more elderly than at any point before in its history.

            This aging of the population is part of a worldwide trend among developed countries, and Russia ranks only in the middle of that development. But it poses serious problems for a country that has not wanted to address the problems of the elderly or those the elderly present by their relative growth to the number of working age adults and children.

            Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova points out that “the number of the population older that working-age is growing. The share of people of this older age group by 2030 will form practically 29 percent of the population of the country, and this means that we must prepare for this” (

            According to her, between 2018 and 2024, the number of pensioners will increase from 37.6 million to 40.8 million even as the total population falls. And then by 2030, there will be 43.7 million people in this category even as the Russian total falls still further. That puts real burdens on the government and society that neither has had to bear before.

            Just how radical a change this is for Moscow can be seen if one recalls that in the 1930s, nearly 40 percent of the Soviet population was under 21, a pattern that gave the regime far more possibilities to pursue extensive economic growth. Now, the situation has been reversed, and intensive development must dominate if a decline in living standards is to be avoided.

            This tectonic change is going to drive much Russian government and business decision making over the next several decades, however much the current powers that be hope to continue as they are doing over the course of that period. If the regime and its business allies don’t adapt, they will face a population even more sullen and more angry than the one they see now.

Moscow’s ‘Voyennoye Obozreniye’ Says Russia Doesn’t Need the Northern Sea Route

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 8 – Vladimir Putin’s regime routinely hypes the Northern Sea Route as the future of east-west trade, but a review of the situation by the influential Russian military journal, Voyennoye Obozreniye, suggests that the route isn’t going to play the role the Kremlin envisages, a view that Western analysts increasingly share.

            Russian military analyst Yevgeny Fedorov notes that the possibilities of the Northern Sea Route depend on the development of Russia’s Far North and that such development is not only prohibitively expensive but is unlikely to happen anytime soon (

            The Russian North occupies 18 percent of the country’s territory but has only two percent of Russia’s population. The ports and cities that do exist there were created in Soviet times as part of a grandiose plan to transform the environment. But they do not pay their own way. Instead, they require massive subsidies to this day.

            That has presented the current Russian leaders with a challenge, Fedorov says. No one intends to “throw the Arctic to the winds of fate.” The natural wealth of the region is too great for that. But “to continue developing the region on ‘the Soviet model’ is also something that no one intends to do either.”

            The Putin government has chosen to move forward with a public-private partnership involving Russia’s giant oil and gas companies. The latter have promoted the idea that Russia should not develop cities in the North or roads and railways across melting permafrost regions but rather take out the resources via the Northern Sea Route.

            This looks like the perfect solution. But Fedorov says, it is attractive only in theory.

            Between 2015 and 2020, Moscow planned to develop the region around a series of localized centers, but then it decided instead to promote the development of the region as a single macro-region. “This means that the Russian leadership has in part returned to the Soviet model of development everywhere in the Arctic.”

            “In large measure,” the analyst continues, “this is connected with the hopes for the development of yet another regional mega-project – the Northern Sea Route. The government’s plans for it are simply grandiose” with Moscow assuming that such a route can easily compete against the Suez Canal and its own Trans-Siberian railway.

            Global warming has only added to the self-confidence of Moscow planners, but in fact, the Northern Sea Route remains problematic. The remaining ice requires the existence of icebreakers which even Russia does not have enough of, the opening of new ports for ships to put in at, and a radically expanded navigation aids system.

            Backers of the plan like to speak of speeds of 15 knots an hour for ships using the route, something which would mean that the time between Europe and Asia would be much shorter than on the Suez route, but in fact, the real speeds now possible are only nine knots and thus the transit time is the same for the Northern Sea Route as for the Suez Canal one.

            “But that is not all,” Fedorov says. Container vessels, an increasingly important part of oceanic trade, need to go into ports for resupply ever three to four thousand kilometers.  But there are no ports that ships can use from one end of the Northern Sea Route to the other. Building them would be prohibitively expensive.
            Experts say, he continues, that “from Vladivostok to Rotterdam itself, there is not a single major port capable of receiving container vessels of world class” and that Russia would have to build 16 large ports to make such shipping possible on a regular basis. (The reason container ships have to put in so often is for resupply, of course.)

            “Besides these problems, the Northern Sea Route doesn’t have enough icebreakers. Of the new series, only the Arktika has entered service.” And global warming as fast as it is happening isn’t going to eliminate the need for them anytime soon, the Voyennoe obozreniye analyst says.

            He points out that “the main problems are connected with the extremely weak development of the eastern part of the Arctic Sea Route. In fact, to the east of Norilsk, there is nothing and won’t be for many years. There is no infrastructure, no productive capacity, and no major ports.” Chukotka will get the Internet only in 2024.

            The daunting costs and difficulties of changing all this, Fedorov argues, prompts the question he began with: “Does Russia need the Northern Sea Route?” Most likely, he suggests, the answer is “no.”

            Indeed, if it continues to pursue its dreams, “Russia risks creating an enormous structure, investing gigantic means and in the end having a Northern Sea Route that isn’t used. The transformation of the Arctic into a mega-region is transforming it into an analogue to a Soviet ‘construction of the century,’” something that will cost a lot and achieve little.

“Unfortunately or happily, the Arctic region is not intended as a place where hundreds of thousands or even more millions of people will live. It is too difficult both for health and of the budget.” Consequently, plans for the development of the Northern Sea Route which depends on the development of the Russian North must be scaled back.

            Not unimportantly, concerns about the cost of shipping along the Northern Sea Route, its environmental impact, and declining demand are now being sounded by Western analysts as well, but their voices are often overwhelmed by Russian hype and by those in the West who are using that hype to justify their own plans (


Iran Sets Up Joint Military Committee with Tajikistan, Only Non-Turkic Country in Central Asia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 8 – Maj.Gen. Mohammad Bakeri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, and Sheradli Mirzo, the defense minister of Tajikistan, today in Tehran signed an agreement creating a joint military defense committee (

            The two sides say that the new body will promote security cooperation and help them counter terrorism, but exactly how it will work remains unclear. Nonetheless, because this accord is between the only non-Turkic country in Central Asia and because it involves Iran more deeply in an area Russia considers its backyard, its existence challenges both Ankara and Moscow.

            Turkey has been working to organize the Turkic countries of the region into a pan-Turkic alliance, and Russia remains opposed not only to that but to any outside involvement in security arrangements in the region. But now Iran has exploited the existence of a non-Turkic country in the region to project power into the region.

            This Iranian move also links Tehran more closely with China which has established a major economic and security presence in Tajikistan and gives Iran new possibilities for influence in Afghanistan (

            Iran and Tajikistan speak mutually intelligible Persian languages and thus would seem to be natural partners. But they are not the soul mates some might think. First, Iran is Shiite while Tajikistan is Sunni. Second, Tajikistan is far less religious because of the Soviet occupation. And third, they are not contiguous.

            Moreover, they have a history of tensions. Dushanbe was upset when Iranian leaders received Mukhiddin Kabiri, head of the Tajik Party of Islamic Rebirth in December 2015 ( and relations stayed cool until earlier this year when the Tajik president received the Iranian foreign minister (

            The announcement of a joint military defense committee now appears to be the result of that earlier meeting, but it is also likely to unsettle the geopolitics of Central Asia still further, opening the way not only for Iran to play a greater role but for China as well, two moves that will complicate life for both Turkey and Russia.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

‘The More Moscow Tightens the Screws on Ethnic Groups, the More These Groups Back the Kremlin,’ Three Russian Scholars Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 8 – It has long been observed that non-Russian republics deliver heavier majorities to Vladimir Putin and the ruling party than do Russian regions, but this difference reflects primarily the fact that the non-Russian republics are more rural and it is easier for officials to falsify the results, Stanislav Shkel, Andrey Shcherbak and Tatyana Tkacheva say.

            The three political scientists, the first at Perm State University and the second and third from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, say that neither the predominance of rural voters nor national cultural patterns in these republics is sufficient to explain what is going on (

            Instead and on the basis of research in three rural centers in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, they argue that what is occurring is what has become known as “the tragic brilliance of authoritarianism” in which groups under pressure from the center often prove more supportive of it than those under less pressure (

            This “paradox,” the three argue occurs because of the different meaning of political participation in authoritarian systems as compared to that in democratic ones. “In contrast to democracies where voters can punish the government for an economic crisis by voting for the opposition, authoritarian regimes can use crises for their own benefit.”

            “Here is the logic,” the three scholars say. “In a period of economic growth, every region gets subsidies form  the center with loyal ones somewhat more than less loyal ones. But during a period of limited resources and tightened central control, it become clear to all that less-loyal regions can see their economic lifelines reduced if not cut completely.”

            And that means that because regions must compete for subsidies, political loyalty to the rulers in Moscow as expressed in voting for Putin and United Russia, “becomes a key advantage,” and non-Russian voters rationally choose that tactic in order to gain an advantage or at least not lose it.

            “Under pressure of crisis and centralization,” these non-Russians “are less interested in expanding their political and cultural autonomy than preserving the status quo; and threatened with the loss of their remaining ethnic preferences, they are inclined not only to unite behind ‘their own’ regional head but also to follow his calls for vote for Kremlin’s favored candidates.”

            “This is the essence of authoritarian tragic brilliance,” they right. Tragic because ethnic minorities are forced to give up their ethnic and cultural rights; and brilliant because the tightening of screws by an authoritarian regime paradoxically reinforces the loyalty of the ethnic minorities.”

            They offer these conclusions after examining and dismissing in whole or in part many of the usual explanations for the reality that Putin and United Russia do better in non-Russian republics than in Russian regions despite the actions the Moscow leaders regularly take against them and that they don’t like.

            They call into question widespread suggestions that the ethnic minorities in Russia have tighter communication links and that these lead them to vote for those the leaders of these minorities call on them to back. But the three say that their research shows that “ethnicity does not influence one’s political choice and that ethnic minorities don’t vote for the regime any more than ethnic Russian ones do.”

            A much more influential factor is the share of people who live in rural areas. Non-Russians disproportionately do, and that affects both the level of their participation and their support for candidates from the party of power. People are more likely to vote because everyone knows everyone else in villages, and no one wants to embarrass or discomfort others.

            As to whom they vote for, that isn’t because of the ethnic cohesiveness but rather something else. People with whom the three political scientists spoke said they “try to elect those who can be most helpful for their village.” And “that is why the pleases of local officials to back candidates with status and resources can be influential.”

            “Given that almost all members of United Russia are in charge of an enterprise, people vote for them in the hope that they will provide material support to the village, and they avoid voting for the opposition out of fear that the head of the municipality will in that event punish the village by cutting back on financial support.”

            The votes of non-Russians for candidates of the party of power do not mean that the non-Russians support policies that they dislike because they hurt their ethnic rights. Instead, the three argue, the non-Russians vote as they do for the party of power for specifically materialistic reasons.

            There is one place where ethnicity drives voting and that involves the leadership of the region or republic. Non-Russians believe that the leaders of the places where they are the titular group should be members of the same nationality as they are. They will vote on ethnic lines in that case.

            For the non-Russians they surveyed, “the regional leader’s ethnicity [is] a symbol of preservation for their culture and special ethnic status,” something that “lifts there hopes that a regional leader who is ‘one of our own’ can ease pressure on them from the federal center and thus protect their culture.”

            And this has an important lesson for Moscow as well: “centralization and its tendency to reduce the political and cultural autonomy of minorities in Russia increase the motivation of members of these groups to support politicians who represent their ethnic group” even if in other cases they vote on class lines rather than ethnic ones.

            But this tendency is limited by the following factor in many cases: Non-Russians are quite prepared to listen to their regional leaders, even those of the same ethnic groups, who argue that failure to support Putin and United Russia will “anger Moscow” and put them at risk of losing even what they already have.

Controversy with Slovakia Undercuts Moscow’s Efforts to Promote Sale of Its Vaccine Abroad

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 8 – The Slovak government said that the vaccine Moscow had sent to that country differed in fundamental ways from the one the Russian authorities have described in international medical journals and to the European Union. Russian officials responded by accusing the Slovaks of waging “a disinformation campaign” against Sputnik-5 ( and

            Given that Russia is engaged in a massive effort to sell its vaccine abroad, including to EU countries, any such stories necessarily make potential purchasers more reluctant to use the Russian vaccine ( and

            Today, Moscow reported registering 8672 new cases of infection and 365 new deaths from the coronavirus over the last 24 hours, as the pandemic continued to ease in most but not all places ( and

            As the numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths from the pandemic have dropped, officials in many places have come under increasing pressure to lift restrictions and reopen various public venues. Some have moved too quickly and the result has been a series of still-local spikes (

            Among the restrictions most likely to be lifted in the next few weeks are those against attendance at parades and especially the Victory Day celebrations. Today, Krasnodar became the first city planning such an event to declare that far more people will be allowed to attend than the pandemic rules had allowed up to now (

            On the vaccine front, Moscow’s massive shipments of vaccine to hard-hit St. Petersburg have pushed that city’s vaccination rates higher, with eight percent of residents now having gotten at least one shot and 5.7 percent the full, two-shot course (

            One region that is still running short is the Far Eastern Federal District. Many of its oblasts, krays and republics do not yet have enough medication to meet demand. The presidential plenipotentiary says that about 10 percent of the district’s residents have been vaccinated ( and

            And in Daghestan, Muslim leaders announced that they would conduct public information programs inside mosques there to promote the vaccine (

            On the economic front, officials announced that beauty salons had been one of the most hard-hit consumer sectors during the pandemic year. Shops have suffered losses of up to 40 percent and a quarter of the outlets have closed their doors for good (

            Meanwhile, in other pandemic-related developments in Russia today,

·         Officials pressed Russians to take their vacations within the country rather than risk travelling abroad and bringing infections back with them (

·         Doctors reported an increasing number of incidents which they are calling post-covid syndrome involving memory loss and frequent tiredness among those who have recovered from the infection ( and

·         A Moscow courier was arrested when it was discovered that he was distributing fake vaccination certificates in the Russian capital (

More than Most Regimes, Moscow Exploited Pandemic to Cover Increasing Repression, Amnesty International Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 7 – Governments around the world exploited the coronavirus pandemic to justify expanding state powers and increase repression against their peoples, Amnesty International says. But even in this sad worldwide picture, Russia stood out in how far it was prepared to go in this regard.

            The human rights organization devoted an entire section to Russia, and its findings as presented there have been summarized by MBC journalist Dmitry Rebrov ( and

            The Amnesty report said that the Russian authorities used the pandemic as a cover to increase their repression of the population “to a qualitatively new level” by using measures supposedly designed to protect the people from the disease to take away their rights and freedoms.

            Thus, the new Russian law on “fake new” was supposedly intended to block the spread of false information about the coronavirus that could spread panic or lead to counter-productive behavior was in fact used against those who protested against the Kremlin over a wide variety of issues.

            Citing the danger of the spread of the pandemic, the Russian authorities banned meetings and punished those went ahead anyway if the meetings were protests against the regime but did not take analogous steps against meetings supporting the regime and those who took part in them despite the fact that both kinds of meetings could spread the disease.

            Under cover of the coronavirus, the Russian government increased its repression of journalists and others who took steps the regime didn’t like, including but not limited to opposition figure Aleksey Navalny, Shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev, and political blogger Nikolay Platoshkin.

            Over the course of the pandemic year, the regime also further limited the activities of NGOs and human rights activists and extended its troubling term “’foreign agents’” to ever more institutions, groups, and even individuals. Amnesty called these actions both “’draconian’” and “’harmful.’”

            Perhaps especially disturbing were the repressive actions of the Russian regime against doctors and other medical personnel who called attention to shortcomings in Moscow’s handling of the pandemic, precisely the opposite of what they should have been doing if the regime were truly interested in fighting the coronavirus.

            Amnesty also pointed out that repressions that had absolutely nothing to do with the pandemic but began well before it increased as well, with cases against the Jehovah’s Witnesses increasing in number and sentences increasing in severity during the pandemic year.

But the pandemic did make conditions in Russia’s already notorious prison facilities worse as well, something the regime used its powers to try to hide again invoking when anyone questioned what it was doing the need to ensure that the pandemic did not spread more widely there.

Russians Don’t Have Consensus Answers to the Three Same Basic Questions about 1917 and 1991, Gontmakher Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 7 – Recently, Russia passed the centenary of the 1917 revolution and soon will pass the 30th anniversary of the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, but despite that, Russians do not have agreed upon answers to the same three basic questions about either of those events, Yevgeny Gontmakher says.

            They still have not been told by their leaders whether either or both were inevitable, whether either or both were really intended to put Russia on the path toward a flourishing future, or whether either or both could really do anything about underlying Russian realities, the Moscow commentator says (

            Many people have opinions about all of these questions, of course, but the country’s political leadership has not addressed them as such. Vladimir Putin didn’t in 2017, and it seems improbable that he will do so this year, given the political calendar with its own imperatives. But some common answers are needed because they provide the foundation for future choices and developments.

            The provision of such answers could come from above, that is from Putin, or from below, that is from the population. The latter is unlikely, Gontmakher insists; but the former is very much going on, so far not leading to a consensus but exacerbating divisions over the past which inevitably become divisions over the future.

            One can hope that the country’s political leadership will ultimately reflect on the need for answers to these questions, especially given its obsessive focus on the past rather than the future. But if that doesn’t happen, the discussions from below may mean that Russians instead of learning from the past will be, as Santayana suggested, condemned to repeat it.