Mother Rus­sia is Dy­ing and the Krem­lin is Ill-Pre­pared to Act

The Moscow Times - - LOOKING BACK -

The lat­est num­bers are in, and the fore­cast for Rus­sia’s de­mo­graphic health is bleak. Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures re­leased by the coun­try’s state statis­tics agency, Ros­stat, in late May, Rus­sia had 70,000 fewer births dur­ing the first four months of 2017 than it did a year ear­lier.

These statis­tics run against the Krem­lin’s tri­umphal­ist nar­ra­tive, in which strong lead­er­ship and shrewd in­vest­ments al­lowed Rus­sia to de­ci­sively turn a de­mo­graphic cor­ner.

In­stead, as one anal­y­sis of the Ros­stat fig­ures puts it, the “ex­tinc­tion” of Rus­sia’s pop­u­la­tion is ac­cel­er­at­ing, as the ad­verse de­mo­graphic trends that have long af­fected the coun­try con­tinue to rage un­abated.

This state of af­fairs is hardly new. For decades, Soviet lead­ers—and then Rus­sian ones—grap­pled with a per­sis­tent pop­u­la­tion down­turn caused by fac­tors like high mor­tal­ity, per­va­sive abor­tion and low life ex­pectancy. That sit­u­a­tion has con­tin­ued into the Putin era—in 2012, the Rus­sian pres­i­dent him­self pre­dicted that the na­tion’s pop­u­la­tion would dwin­dle to just 107 mil­lion by 2050.

The lat­est Ros­stat num­bers con­firm this trend and put the coun­try on track to lose nearly 300,000 souls this year alone.

Over the past few years, the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment has launched sev­eral at­tempts to re­v­erse pop­u­la­tion de­cline. Ar­guably the most prom­i­nent of these has been the “ma­ter­nity cap­i­tal” cam­paign launched by Pres­i­dent Putin in late 2006 giv­ing $11,000 to women who give birth to at least two chil­dren. Its im­pact was neg­li­gi­ble. A com­pre­hen­sive de­mo­graphic strat­egy re­mains mostly con­cep­tual, de­spite the fact that the Krem­lin passed a gov­ern­men­tal blue­print for re­solv­ing the is­sue (known of­fi­cially as the Con­cept of De­mo­graphic Pol­icy) a decade ago.

In fact, the coun­try seems to be head­ing the op­po­site di­rec­tion. The Krem­lin’s re­cent drive to “op­ti­mize” so­cial ser­vices and health­care—a part of Putin’s on­go­ing at­tempt to grap­ple with Western sanc­tions—threat­ens to wipe out even the mod­est con­tri­bu­tions that re­cent med­i­cal and so­cial ini­tia­tives have made to the over­all pace of Rus­sia’s pop­u­la­tion.

These num­bers should spur some se­ri­ous think­ing from Rus­sia’s lead­ers. They need to ad­dress their coun­try’s na­tional iden­tity, the health of its pop­u­la­tion, and its place in the world. Sadly, there’s lit­tle rea­son to ex­pect they will. Over the past decade, Mr. Putin and his gov­ern­ment have pri­or­i­tized ini­tia­tives that pro­ject the im­age of Rus­sia as a global power. This has led to a cer­tain set of spend­ing pri­or­i­ties. The Krem­lin has in­vested heav­ily in mil­i­tary pro­cure­ment,

the de­vel­op­ment of new strate­gic ca­pa­bil­i­ties, and for­eign ad­ven­tur­ism in places like Ukraine and Syria.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2015 sur­vey by Bloomberg, mil­i­tary ex­pen­di­tures have in­creased by a factor of twenty since Mr. Putin be­came pres­i­dent a decade-and-a-half ear­lier. De­fense and se­cu­rity now ac­count for some 34 per­cent of Rus­sia’s bud­get.

Mean­while, so­cial pro­grams and in­fra­struc­ture, which col­lec­tively make up the lifeblood of a healthy so­ci­ety, have re­ceived markedly short shrift. This year, Rus­sia is es­ti­mated to spend less than 11 per­cent of its to­tal fed­eral bud­get on health care and only slightly more (11.5 per­cent) on ed­u­ca­tion. By way of com­par­i­son, the United States spends some 19.1 per­cent of its bud­get on mil­i­tary ex­penses, roughly the same amount on health care, and nearly as much [17.1 per­cent] on ed­u­ca­tion.

This im­bal­ance could have ru­inous con­se­quences. Mis­placed pri­or­i­ties have helped per­pet­u­ate—and even ac­cel­er­ate—the ad­verse de­mo­graphic trends that have his­tor­i­cally plagued Rus­sian so­ci­ety, with long-term ef­fects on the coun­try’s vi­tal­ity and per­haps even its vi­a­bil­ity as a na­tion.

In the process, Putin and com­pany have be­come se­rial vi­o­la­tors of an age-old tenet of gov­er­nance: that pros­per­ity and sta­bil­ity must be­gin at home.

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