Sunday, November 6, 2011

Russia and Its People: A Death Spiral?

Russia presents the bizarre image of a modern, supposedly well-educated society that is regressing in terms of health and social development. Its demographics have been discussed previously here. Nicholas Eberstadt summarizes the demographic issues and discusses some rather critical implications, both for Russia and for the rest of the world, in an article in Foreign Affairs: The Dying Bear.

There are a number of countries whose populations are close to, or are beginning to decrease. These include Germany, Italy and Japan. These nations face declining birth rates, but an ever healthier society. Russia is different in that its population decline comes from a declining birth rate and, uniquely for a modern nation, increased mortality rates.

"Since 1992, according to Rosstat, Russia's federal statistics agency....about 12.5 million more Russians have been buried than born -- or nearly three funerals for every two live deliveries for the past 20 years. Globally, in the years since World War II, there has been only one more horrific surfeit of deaths over births: in China in 1959-61, as a result of Mao Zedong's catastrophic Great Leap Forward."

In Russia, life expectancies have been falling for decades.

"According to estimates from the Human Mortality Database, a research consortium, overall life expectancy at birth in Russia was slightly lower in 2009 (the latest year for which figures are available) than in 1961, almost half a century earlier. The situation is even worse for Russia's adult population: in 2009, life expectancy at age 15 for all Russian adults was more than two years below its level in 1959; life expectancy for young men sank by almost four years over those two generations."

"By various measures, Russia's demographic indicators resemble those in many of the world's poorest and least developed societies. In 2009, overall life expectancy at age 15 was estimated to be lower in Russia than in Bangladesh, East Timor, Eritrea, Madagascar, Niger, and Yemen; even worse, Russia's adult male life expectancy was estimated to be lower than Sudan's, Rwanda's, and even AIDS-ravaged Botswana's. Although Russian women fare relatively better than Russian men, the mortality rate for Russian women of working age in 2009 was slightly higher than for working-age women in Bolivia, South America's poorest country; 20 years earlier, Russia's death rate for working-age women was 45 percent lower than Bolivia's."

Although Russians are among the heaviest smokers and are famous for their love of vodka, Eberstadt claims the explanation is more complex than that. For those interested in healthcare in Russia, a more detailed explanation can be found here. It seems that there may be nothing more mysterious going on than the combination of a people with atrocious personal habits residing in a country with an atrocious public health system.

Eberstadt’s concern in this article is focused on the consequences for Russia and the world of this state of affairs.

"There is also little evidence that Russia's political leadership has been able to enact policies that have any long-term hope of correcting this slide. This peacetime population crisis threatens Russia's economic outlook, its ambitions to modernize and develop, and quite possibly its security. In other words, Russia's demographic travails have terrible and outsized implications, both for those inside the country's borders and for those beyond. The humanitarian toll has already been immense, and the continuing economic cost threatens to be huge; no less important, Russia's demographic decline portends ominously for the external behavior of the Kremlin, which will have to confront a far less favorable power balance than it had been banking on."

Russia appears, on the surface, to be economically healthy. It has vast amounts of energy for sale to a needy world, but it has been unable to compete economically in other areas. As Eberstadt points out: even with all its wealth in natural resources Russia’s exports are on about the same level as that of tiny Belgium.

One is accustomed to think of Russia as a highly educated society with a long history of accomplishments in the arts and sciences. The actual situation is quite the contrary. One can go here to discover that Russian students on a whole have a reading proficiency that is equivalent to the US’s lowest performing region—Washington DC. On the international scale that puts Russia just behind Turkey and just ahead of Bulgaria.

The university system also has a superficial sheen of health with the fraction of its adult population with a postsecondary education "30 percentage points higher than the OECD average." However, there is little observable result from all that education. Eberstadt suggests that numbers of patent applications and numbers of scientific publications are indicators of a healthy economy. In these the education system is failing and the country is falling far behind its BRIC cohort of Brazil, India and China.

"In effect, Russia stands as a new and disturbing wonder in today's globalized world: a society characterized by high levels of schooling but low levels of health, knowledge, and education."

Measures of family life in Russia are equally ominous. The divorce rate in the soviet era was bad—since it has become even worse. While divorce rates seem to be growing everywhere in the developed world, Russia is again unique in that it provides little means of support for struggling single parents.

"Unlike Europeans or Americans, they can count on little support from social welfare programs. Although Western economic theory would suggest that having fewer children means that parents can invest more in each child, the opposite seems to be happening in Russia: despite its steep drop in births, the country has seen small but ominous decreases in primary school enrollment ratios and alarming increases in child abandonment. According to official statistics, more than 400,000 Russian children below 18 years of age lived in residential care as of 2004, meaning that almost one child in 70 was in a children's home, an orphanage, or a state-run boarding school. Russia is also home to a large and growing contingent of homeless children, which, according to some nongovernmental and charitable organizations, could very well exceed the number of youth under institutional care."

Added to dysfunction in the economy and in society, Russia is also an aging nation.

"The Census Bureau also anticipates that Russians 65 and older, a cohort that now makes up 13 percent of the country's population, will compose almost 19 percent in 2025. As a result of aging alone, per capita mortality in Russia would rise by more than 20 percent if nothing else changed. And given the immense negative momentum in public health among the Russian population today, attaining any long-term improvements in life expectancy promises to be a formidable task."

Russian population numbers have been propped up by immigration of millions of workers from former Soviet Union countries. There may be trouble growing on that front also.

"But the outlook for future immigration to Russia is clouded: changes in education policy throughout the former Soviet Union mean that today's immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia speak less Russian than their parents and thus have more difficultly integrating into Russian society. Meanwhile, the Russian public's attitude toward newcomers from those regions has grown less welcoming."

Eberstadt has concerns Russia will not be in a position to maintain its current status among nations. It has many issues to deal with, but a declining means with which to address them. Consider its Far East region on the other side of the Urals.

"....a region of over two million square miles and barely six million inhabitants. One-sixth of the population of this harsh and forbidding territory has moved out since 1989, and the exodus continues. Many Russian analysts and policymakers are worried about what will become of this resource-rich area that adjoins a rising and densely populated China."

This could be viewed as an opportunity for close economic integration with China and other neighbors, but it could also merely mean that Russia will at some point lose the force or will to retain this as a sovereign region—with unknowable international consequences.

Russia’s inability to develop an innovative economy that can complement its natural resource-based activities, also has implications for its military, where its defense capabilities seem to be living off of Soviet-era developments. It may even have trouble maintaining a military force of the requisite size.

"Maintaining the country's current force structure -- a military of more than a million soldiers, mainly comprising conscripts obliged to serve one-year terms of service -- will not be feasible in the years immediately ahead. Despite plans to transform Russia's armed forces into an all-volunteer service, the Russian military continues to be manned mainly by 18-year-old men. In 1990, slightly more than one million boys were born in Russia; by 1999, however, this number had dropped by 39 percent, to 626,000. Roughly speaking, this means that Russia's pool of prospective recruits is set to fall by almost two-fifths between 2008 and 2017. If Moscow is to prevent this dramatic drop-off in military manpower, it has only two choices: induct fewer qualified conscripts or extend the term of service under the draft beyond the current 12 months. The former is unpalatable because of the need for healthy and educated troops for modern militaries; the latter is politically impossible because of the immense unpopularity of the draft and the penurious wages paid to Russian soldiers."

Besides an inevitable need to come to terms with China in the Far East, Russia finds itself surrounded by countries with uncertain intentions and uncertain futures.

"Russia is surrounded by countries whose stability and comity in the decades ahead are anything but given: for example, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and the Central Asian republics. If Russia's periphery becomes more unstable and threatening at the same time that Russia's rulers realize their relative power is waning, the Kremlin's behavior may well become less confident -- and more risky."

Eberstadt’s greatest fear seems to be an emerging Russia that is increasingly dysfunctional, but still striving to maintain past glories. No longer having the conventional military might to ensure its dominance, it will still have a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons at its disposal.

"Indeed, once the Kremlin finally confronts the true depths of the country's ugly demographic truths, Russia's political leaders could very well become more alarmist, mercurial, and confrontational in their international posture. And in the process, Moscow might become more prone to miscalculation when it comes to relations with both allies and rivals."

As a country, Russia has one of the more intriguing stories to tell. Stay tuned—it will be interesting!

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