Doomsday Demographics; Russia's Population Declines Sharply as Births Drop, Nation's Health Falters

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Byline: Marion Baillot, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Russia is sliding into a demographic abyss, compromising its long-term economic, health, development and security prospects, according a recent report from the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR).

During its 11-plus years of post-communism independence, "Russia's population apparently declined by more than 4 million people, or about 3 percent. In proportional terms, this was by no means the largest population loss recorded during that period," wrote Nicholas Eberstadt, editor of the report from the Seattle-based nonprofit research organization.

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin listed population decline as a top priority in his inaugural state of the nation speech and more recently described it as a "creeping catastrophe," the report suggested that very little is being done to prevent it.

The obvious solution - encouraging young immigrants from overpopulated Asian neighbors such as China - is so politically sensitive that Russian leaders refuse to even discuss it.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects a Russian population decline of 19 million from 2000 to 2025. The United Nations Population Division (UNPD) foresees a drop of more than 21 million in that period.

Russia's population loss is caused by "remarkably low birthrates" and "terrifyingly high death rates," the NBR report said.

According to Council of Europe figures, Russia is not the only European country facing more deaths than births. For example, the balance is quite tight in Italy, where there are an average of 103 deaths for each 100 live births. Russia registers more than 170 deaths per 100 live births.

According to official Russian calculations, each woman must bear an average 2.33 children in her lifetime to stabilize the country's population over generations. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian fertility rate plummeted from 2.19 children per woman in 1986 to 1987 to 1.17 in 1999. In 2001, the fertility rate was 1.25 in Russia.

"If Russia's childbearing patterns from the year 2001 were extended indefinitely, each new generation of Russians would be over 40 percent smaller than its predecessor," Mr. Eberstadt estimated.

This demographic transition is characteristic of industrial and industrializing nations and usually is associated with greater numbers of women joining the work force and rising divorce rates, both of which tend to reduce family size. Similar patterns have emerged in the United States and other Western countries.

However, Russia's fertility patterns have followed a unique path in the past two decades, notably a shift toward earlier childbearing, a trend that is not noticeable in the United States or Western Europe.

The Russian fertility rate is among the world's lowest, and its abortion rate is the highest.

The NBR report said abortion long has been seen as the primary means of birth control in Russia, with procedures "conducted under the less-than-exemplary standards of Soviet and post-Soviet medicine." Abortion frequently poses health risks for Russian women because it is often performed without proper hygiene or anesthesia.

Some other reports suggest that 10 percent to 20 percent of Russian women become infertile after abortions.

The problem of infertility also is exacerbated by the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, which when untreated or inadequately treated can cause sterility.

The incidence of syphilis in 2001 was reportedly a hundred times higher in Russia than in Germany, and several hundred times higher than in other European countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium.

Economic hard times might have further influenced Russia's fertility pattern. Although a two-child family is still the norm, economic difficulties might force postponement of having a second child.

But, the report said, "Far more ominous for Russia than the fertility prospect is the mortality outlook" because of declining average health. …