Staunton, March 21 -- A longstanding staple of Putin regime propaganda is that the capitalism of “the wild 1990s,” by driving down birthrates, led to a more dramatic decline in the population of the Russian Federation than did even the repressions of the Stalin period. Indeed, that has become an article of faith among many Putin supporters.
But these same Russians are unlikely to be pleased by an analysis Russian economist Andrey Illarionov has carried out that shows Russia has had to pay “a demographic price” for Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Syria amounting to 180,000 children who would have been born save for Kremlin policies (echo.msk.ru/blog/aillar/2169738-echo/).
According to Rosstat, Russian mothers gave birth to 203,000 babies fewer in 2017 than they had the year before, a decline of 10.7 percent, the economist says. This year, they are on pace to give birth to 360,000 fewer than in 2017, a decline that matches those in the first post-Soviet years.
Given that marriages did not decline in number but in fact rose last year, Illarionov says, one has to ask: “What has happened with the birthrate? Why has such a sharp decline occurred?”
Vladimir Putin has an answer: he says it is because of the demographic waves that Russia has had to live with since the massive losses in World War II. But even official statistics “only partially confirms this hypothesis given that between 2016 and 2017 the number of women in prime child-bearing age groups fell by 0.9 percent but the number of newborns declined by 10.7.
If Putin were right, then the birthrate should have fallen in the early 2000s when the number of women began to decline rather than in 2017 when that decline began to level off. But in fact, in the earlier years, while the number of women of child-bearing age declined, the number of births increased because fertility went up.
But in 2017, the fertility rate plunged by “a catastrophic 10 percent,” from 54.5 births per 1000 potential mothers to 49.1. This means that “less than 10 percent” of the decline in 2017 in new births is explained by the structural factor Putin uses to explain things and “more than 90 percent of the decline” reflects “a radical change in reproductive behavior of Russian women.”
Why did the reproductive behavior of Russian women change so radically in 2017? Some demographers suggest that it reflects in the first instance the end of government subsidies to stimulate the birthrate; others point to the impact of the deepening socio-economic crisis in which Russia finds itself.
“Besides this,” Illarionov says, “the social catastrophe of 2014-2016 was probably deepened by the especially aggressive foreign policy of the Kremlin carried out since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and a war in the Ukrainian Donbass.” Those things had an enormous impact on people’s expectations and therefore their propensity to have children.
And that allows for the following devastating conclusion, the Russian economist says: It was “precisely the actions of the Russian authorities – the mistakes of the government in demographic policy, the depth of the social crisis … and the aggressive actions outside the country – that are the main reasons why Russian women beginning in 2015-2016 began to massively restrain from having children.”
Russia is thus paying a price for demographic losses that can’t be blamed on World War II as Putin would like but on the Kremlin leader’s own policies.