Demography and Democracy in Russia: Human Capital Challenges to Democratic Consolidation

Article excerpt

Two years after the exit of Boris Yeltsin, Russia appeared more stable politically and better off economically. The apparent consolidation of "managed democracy" under Vladimir Putin is applauded by many, both inside and outside Russia, who consider that the regime's economic policies warrant downplaying shortcomings in domestic politics and human rights. Invoking examples such as Chile or Korea, optimists suggest that over time the Russian system will evolve into a competitive rather than a managed democracy.

There are (at least) two related flaws in the argument that Russia is now on an "indirect" but nevertheless inevitable path to democracy. Democracy does not develop automatically; it is achieved by contestation. Leaders and their cronies do not willingly give up political power and the economic opportunities that it offers. They must be constrained by other political forces. Yet Russia's demographic, health, and human capital situation portends political issues that will make it dauntingly difficult to advance an agenda of democracy, liberal politics (as opposed to economics), or human rights. More likely, the demographic challenge will encourage Russia's leaders to do what they are inclined to do anyway--continue to try to manage the nation's political life, while adhering to an extreme version of laissez faire where social welfare is concerned. This prospect offers the chimera of short-term stability at an enormous cost to long-term development.

One of the important lessons of the first decade of the post-Soviet experience was that although education was crucial for the "East Asian miracle," high levels of literacy and millions of engineers are not sufficient to ensure economic development or democracy. A key lesson of the second decade is likely to be that human capital issues present gargantuan challenges that create economic problems while making it more difficult for a political system to evolve in a more democratic direction. In this essay, I provide a brief summary of Russia's demographic and human capital crisis and then turn to an explication of some of the potential political consequences. (1) Prognostication is always a dangerous endeavor; in this instance, the projections are made in the sincere hope that Russia's leaders adopt policies that will make the forecasts offered here appear foolish a decade from now.

Is Demography Russia's Destiny?

Russia's human capital crisis begins with but is hardly limited to demography. The challenges are both quantitative and qualitative. The fundamental quantitative issue is that the number of Russians is declining. The Soviet Union experienced the "demographic revolution" following World War II, a process accompanying urbanization that entails reduced family size. It thus far has not been reversed in the societies where it has occurred. In the Soviet case, the declining birth rates accompanying high levels of urbanization and education were magnified by other negative population phenomena. Beginning in the 1970s, infant mortality increased and adult life expectancy began to decline. Both trends were so anomalous that they provoked intense debate. Not only Soviet but also many Western specialists rejected the data as counter to what should be expected in "advanced" societies. It eventually became quite clear that the USSR was experiencing unusual levels of infant mortality because of defects in the health care system and poor health practices, including substance abuse and excessive use of abortion as a means of birth control. Although infant mortality was higher among non-Slavic groups in the USSR, declining adult life expectancy, particularly for males, clearly affected the Slavic and minority populations.

Following the demise of the USSR, the negative demographic trends became more acute. Throughout the former Soviet bloc illness and mortality rates increased as economies atrophied and social welfare systems evaporated. …