Winning: No Country For Old Men Or New Mothers

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November 13, 2018: Despite shrinking budgets (because of sanctions and lower oil prices) Russia declared major increases next year for programs that deal with declining birth rates and rising death rates. So far in 2018 for every hundred births, there were 120 deaths. Even worse the number of births was down four percent compared to the same period in 2017. Similarly, deaths were up nearly two percent.

Some of the increased population declines can be blamed on sanctions and low oil prices. The sanctions made dollars more expensive (to buy with rubles) and non-sanctioned imports like medicine became much more expensive. So the government imported a lot less medicine and that led to higher death rates, especially among the elderly who could no longer, for example, get a flu vaccine each year. The reduced government income led to the closing of many rural clinics and hospitals, which was particularly bad for Siberia and the Far East where population decline was much higher since the 1990s because during Soviet times the government paid bonuses to those who would live there. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 those bonuses (plus the many rules governing who could live where) disappeared and so did a lot of the population. Since 1991 population declines of 20 percent or more were common in these areas and in some of the more inhospitable areas on the Pacific Coast, over 30 percent. As these areas emptied out a disproportionate number of older people were left behind in parts of the country that had less of everything, including new mothers and anyone able to help care for the elderly.

Another factor, especially since 2014, has been the increased use of cheaper (and often poisonous) homemade vodka. Similarly, the corruption in the processed food industry continues to allow contaminated foods to be sold. Since the sanctions, a lot more Russian professionals, including doctors and nurses, have left the country for better jobs elsewhere. The government has long recognized that the shrinking population means less economic growth and growing problems in keeping the military up to strength.

On the plus side, these population problems made Russia less of a military threat to its neighbors. For centuries Russia (rebranded as the Soviet Union in the early 1920s) was considered a threat to its neighbors by virtue of its larger population. But since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 (and half the population broke away to form 14 new nations) the remaining Russian population has been in decline. Twenty years after the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian population implosion was getting worse. While in the 1990s the population was shrinking at a rate of .1 percent a year, in the first decade of the 21st century that increased to .2 percent a year. This was because the non-Slav Russians are having fewer children, just as the Slavs have been doing (or, rather, not doing) for decades. The Russian population has declined three percent since 1989, from 147 to 142.9 million. The proportion of the population that is ethnic Russian (Slav) has declined from 81.5 percent to 77 percent in that same period. The Russian slide could have been worse had it not been for the fact that millions of ethnic Russians in the 14 new states felt unwelcome with government controlled by the locals, not Russians in far-off Moscow. Often the locals wanted the ethnic locals in their midst gone and Russia made it easy for ethnic Russians to return to the motherland. This prevented the Russian population decline from being closer to ten percent. Until the recent invasion of Ukraine, sanctions and lower oil prices, the Russian birth rate was growing. That has stopped.

The new nations created when the Soviet Union fell apart are having similar problems, especially in the Caucasus (south of Russia, north of Iran). In 2015 Georgia announced the results of its 2014 census. This was the first census since 2002 and the news was worse than expected. The census found the Georgian population was 3.73 million, a 15 percent decline from 2002. Worse, the latest count shows that since Georgia broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991 population has declined 30 percent. Most of this was due to Georgians migrating to other countries for better job opportunities and a better life. Some 70 years of communist rule had turned Georgia into a nice place to visit but, for most Georgians, not a great place to make a living. The Georgian experience was typical of the former Soviet states in the Caucasus. Armenia, which also became independent lost 12 percent of its people since getting free of Russia. These population declines were common throughout the former Soviet Union. Some countries, like Georgia, had no source of eager (or at least desperate) ethnic Georgians wanting to return home or abundant natural resources to pay for a better future. For Georgia most of the traffic was outbound and while the rate of migration has slowed it continues.

It’s somewhat different in the east; the five new nations created in what used to be Russian Central Asia and the Russian Far East. Chinese are moving in to fill jobs that Russians left behind. There are also lots of Chinese merchants, bringing in a wide variety of less expensive goods. In Central Asia, the Chinese are arriving in large numbers to build Chinese financed infrastructure projects (roads, railroads and the like). Many of these Chinese stay, if they can, and become permanent residents. But for Russia itself, and Slav majority population, everything is fading away.

 


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