Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russia Dying Off in the Center

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 15 – For the first time since the end of the USSR, there were more births than deaths among Russian citizens during the first 11 months of 2013. While the difference was small, 23,000, compard to the number of births 1.753 million and deaths 1.730 million, many commentators were celebrating what one called “a cross on the Russian cross.”

            But behind these figures are two others that are a matter for greater concern in Moscow. On the one hand, this achievement was an artifact less of rising birth rates than of an anomalously high number of young women in the prime childbearing age groups, a cohort that will decline precipitously in the coming years and with that decline so too the number of births.

            And on the other, most of the growth, as small as it was, came from non-Russian and especially predominantly Muslim areas in the North Caucasus and Middle Volga.  The predominantly ethnic Russian center of the country continued to die off.  As a result, the balance of the population between Russians and non-Russians continues to shift against the former.

            In this week’s “Ekspert,” Ivan Rubanov offers these figures and suggests that they disprove the claims of the pessimists about the demographic future of Russia but do not mean that the country is out of the woods as far as either fertility or mortality rates are concerned (

            One of the reasons the pessimists were wrong, he says, is that women are now giving birth later in life than they did. Consequently, their focus only on the size and behavior of the youngest age groups failed to include the increasing number of children born to women over the age of 25.

            Another reason for their mistake, Rubanov says, is that the pessimists assumed that any increases in the number of births reflected the influx of migrants. While some immigrants who have taken Russian citizenship do have higher fertility rates, their number is relatively small. Those without Russian citizenship, he said, are not counted by Russian agencies for this purpose.

            And yet another reason, he argues, is the government’s pro-natalist policies, although he acknowledged that it is “practically impossible” to segregate out their role as compared to other factors in explaining the recent improvements. He does note as well that mortality rates have fallen, thus allowing the number of births to exceed the number of deaths.

            But even as he presented the “optimistic” version of this trend, Rubanov admits that there are real problems. Except for the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, “the depopulation of Central Russia is continuing,” and the growth of the population in the Muslim North Caucasus is exploding. This is dramatically shown on a map accompanying the article:

            In Chechnya, for example, largely because of a more favorable age structure, there are now five times as many births as deaths, and in Ingushetia, that figure is seven, a pattern that will lead to more children in the next generation there even if as seems like fertility rates among these Muslim nationalities fall. In the Daghestani capital, fertility rates are now similar to those in the cities of central Russia.

                In Russian regions of the country, on the other hand, the demographic future looks bleak outside the capital.  “Crudely speaking,” Rubanov says, “there is simply no one in the villages of the Non-Black Earth zone to give birth” because of the flight of young people to the cities and the dying off of the old.

            No one should be “euphoric” about these latest figures or reduce his or her attention to demography, the “Ekspert” writer says.  More needs to be done: more kindergartens need to be built, more attractive apartments and houses for families erected, and more opportunities for part time work so women do not have to choose between family and job.

            Those are good things to do on their own, Rubanov concludes because “even if the demographic impact from these measures turns out to be small, they will definitely help to raise the quality of life of Russians,” something that should be the goal of Russian government policies.

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