Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Aging of Russian Population Said Helping Putin Retain Power But Hurting Country Over the Longer Term

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 17 – “Time is working for President Putin and his regime” because the aging of the Russian population means that he can rely on the ever greater share of the population of pensioners, some Moscow experts say, but concomitantly time is working against Russia because it is rapidly driving down the country’s population, demographers suggest.

            In an article entitled “Russia is Too Old for a Revolution,” Finmark.ru points out that revolutions as in the Arab Spring are usually made by the young and that countries like Russia with aging populations are less likely to see that kind of turmoil however severe their problems may be (finmarket.ru/main/article/3577467).

            The financial news service draws that conclusion from a series of reports by researchers at the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service. One of their number, Sergey Shulgin, argues that analysts need to focus on demography and not just political factors to explain electoral outcomes in Russia.

            In the 1990s, he notes, people talked about a “red belt” whose agrarian residents voted reliably for the KPRF. But after Putin came to power, this “communist belt” somehow disappeared. In fact, Shulgin says, it never really existed but rather reflected some more general demographic trends.

            In analyzing the most recent elections, Shulgin and his colleagues found that the KPRF’s leader Gennady Zyuganov was able to retain second place in the rankings mainly thanks to the support of the adult and elderly population. “People older than 40 actively voted for him.” Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Mikhail Prokhorov, who were third and fourth, divided the youth vote, collecting their greatest support in the 18-24 and 25-39 age groups. 

            Vladimir Putin, who won, drew his most active support from those over 55 and the poor. Indeed, wherever there was a greater share of middle income voters, he did worse. The Russian president received the smallest share of the vote from those aged 40 to 53, Shulgin and his associates say.

            Because Russia’s birthrate is falling over the long term  and its population living longer, by 2030, the number of young people (18-24) “will not increase,” and “the number of people o middle age (25-39) will fall sharply, even as pensioners become much more numerous and the largest category of the Russian population.

            Many analysts have focused on the burden that that places on the budget, but they have not focused on its immediate political implications.  This age shift, Shulgin says, works to Putin’s advantage and means that the opposition needs to focus on the 2016 election if it is to have any hope of coming to power.

            But these demographic shifts have less welcome longer-term consequences, as Yekaterina Alyabeva points out in an article on Slon.ru where she says that by the end of this century, Russia’s population could in fact be half as large as it is now (slon.ru/economics/k_2100_godu_rossiya_napolovinu_vymret-1034372.xhtml).

            Indeed, the experts assembled at the Gaydar Hearings this year said, if nothing changes, then by 2060, there will only be 70 million residents of the Russian Federation including migrants. Combatting the country’s super-high adult mortality if they continue could add 15 million for that year but afterwards, the population will continue to fall.

            Despite a recent uptick in the number of births, Russia will suffer a large demographic fall off than it did during World War II and the 1990s. At present, there are only half as many 15 year olds as there are 25 year olds, and a decade from now, women in the prime reproductive age group of 20-29 will be half as numerous as today.

             But that is only part of the story: Russia “is distinguished from all civilized countries by its pathologically high level of mortality among young men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.”  The figures improved somewhat between 2005 and 2009, but in many places around the country, male life expectancy still compares with that in Nigeria or Benin.

            “Every fifth death in Russia is connected with alcohol,” the experts said. Its misuse kills 400,000 people a year. Smoing kills another 300,000, and illegal drugs kill 100,000 more. Other countries, including the Baltic states, earlier suffered from similar patterns, but their governments solved them by spending more on medicine and raising taxes on alcohol.

            Moreover, despite the expectations of many and the fears of some, Russia won’t be saved demographically by immigrants. “All the CIS countries,” the experts said, are entering their own demographic decline because of the fall in birthrates in the 1990s.  Consequently, they will have fewer people to send to Russia whether Russians want them or not.

            The Gaydar Hearings made the following proposals to address this situation: re-establishing the nursery system to make it easier for Russians to have children -- only 16 percent of Russians are using it now – increase spending on medical care from the abysmal levels of today – Russia ranks 131st out of 190 countries in this regard – and more actively struggle against alcoholism by raising taxes on alcoholic beverages – a step that has caused serious problems for earlier Russian governments – and promote “quality” immigration and adaptation.


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