‘Ghost villages’ haunt Russian vote

With a male life expectancy of 62 and a shrinking population, Russia’s demographic decline has become an election issue.

Yulia Kachenyuk, Russia''s demographic timebomb
Yulia says financial assistance from the government did not play a part in her deciding to have another child

MOSCOW: If present trends continue, experts say that Russia’s population will drop from 143 million to 107 million by 2050.

That problem is a major talking point in the country’s upcoming presidential election, due on March 4, with all the candidates offering various policies to tackle the issue.

Vladimir Putin, who is running for a third term as president, has described the decline as “the most acute problem of contemporary Russia” and last month declared that the country faced becoming a “a geopolitical void” if the trend was not reversed.

If elected, Putin has promised that families with more than three children will receive housing priorities and a special allowance of about $250 for each child per month.

Other state benefits would make it easier for women who work to find care for their children during the day.

The Russian government has already introduced several programmes to encourage women to have more children.

The most significant of these, introduced in 2010, has been the “mother’s capital” programme, which gives mothers having a second or third child a certificate worth about $13,000.

The money can be used for a mortgage, a child’s education or the mother’s pension fund.

Yulia is a 32-year-old economist who lives in Solntsevo, a western suburb of Moscow.

She gave birth to a baby son, Fedor, in November and will soon receive the mother’s capital certificate.

Yulia, who also has a 12-year-old daughter, Yana, told Al Jazeera that she would use the certificate to help pay for her mortgage.

However, Yulia said the financial assistance did not play a part in her deciding to have another child and that it was just a “pleasant” bonus.

She also said the programme did not have a role to play in the decision of many of her friends to have more children.

‘Abnormally high death rate’

Russia’s population has been steadily falling since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

According to Goskomstat, Russia’s state committee for statistics, the total population fell from 148.5 million in 1992 to 142 million in 2009.

There was a slight upturn in the last couple of years to 143 million, which the government puts down in part to the “mother’s capital” programme.

There are many reasons for the rapid decline, with experts pointing to poor environmental conditions, a lack of health and safety regulations, and deteriorating healthcare and pre-natal care.

Another factor is the country’s abortion rate – an average of 54 abortions per 1,000 women – which is the highest in the world, according to United Nations figures.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Yury Krupnov, director of Moscow’s Institute of Demography, Migration, and Regional Development, pointed out that Russia combined a low birth rate with an unusually high mortality rate for an industrialised country.

“The crux of the problem is shown in the abnormally high death rate for men in the prime of life,” he said. “In Russia, the death rate at 35 is seven times higher than that in the European Union.”

Life expectancy for men is 62, according to World Health Organisation statistics or at least 15 years less than in most industrialised nations. Life expectancy for women is 74.

The single biggest cause for this, according to a 2009 article in The Lancet, a respected UK medical journal, is alcoholism, with WHO figures suggesting that one in five male deaths in Russia are alcohol related.

‘Ghost villages’

The discrepancy in life expectancy between Russian men and women has created a gender imbalance that can be seen most acutely in the country’s “ghost villages”.

Russia has tens of thousands of ‘ghost villages’ with populations of less than 10 people

Tens of thousands of such villages, whose populations can be counted in handfuls, are dotted across Russia, particularly in the west of the country.

While the exodus of the rural population to cities since the collapse of the Soviet Union has contributed to the trend, the premature deaths of many men has left some villages populated solely by elderly women.

Adding to Russia’s demographic problems, many skilled Russians are also leaving the country in search of better and higher paid jobs.

A survey in 2011 by the Levada Centre, an independent, non-governmental polling and sociological research organisation, revealed that half of Russians did not think there was a future for them in the country, while 63 per cent said they would like their children to live abroad.

Army hit

The high death rate among working age Russians, coupled with skilled workers leaving the country, raises several questions for Russia’s economic future.

The country is set to experience a severe shortage of skilled labour over the next decade, severely hampering the government’s efforts to move away from an economy based mainly on natural resources to one based on services and manufacturing.

Krupnov points out that the problem is also affecting Russia’s army and its ability to meet conscription requirements.

Speaking to Russians in Moscow, citizens seemed both aware and concerned about the problem.

Aleksei, 33, an opera singer from Perm, said: “I think that the demographic situation in Russia is very bad. There is a lot of dying, and few are born.”

While the population decline is mainly among ethnic Russians, other mainly majority-Muslim populations such as Chechens, Ingush and Dagestanis are seeing a rapid increase.

Marina, 43, an accountant from Moscow, said: “The number of Slavs [ethnic Russians] has become much smaller, it is very noticeable; even without considering such large central cities as Moscow and St Petersburg.”

China fears

While some experts have called for increased immigration to solve Russia’s population problems, there is strong social resistance in Russia to allowing permanent migration from Asian countries.

Krupnov says many Russians fear mass
 immigration from Asia

Krupnov says this “because Russian people think that this immigration would be on a massive scale and directed at replacing Russians with populations from Asia”.

The entire eastern third of Russia has a population of less than 10 million people, while the Chinese provinces immediately on Russia’s border have a combined population of more than 120 million.

Last month, the Russian government announced that it would spend $993bn on the development of Eastern Siberia and Far Eastern regions.

The programme outlines various preferences for citizens willing to move to Russia’s sparsely populated eastern territories, but similar schemes have made little difference in the past.

Ahead of Sunday’s election, other presidential candidates have also been putting forward their plans for tackling Russia’s demographic problems.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the nationalist Liberal Democrats, wants to reduce the high abortion rate and has called for men to be allowed to legally have more than one wife in order have more children.

Sergei Mironov, the candidate for the left-wing A Just Russia, wants to introduce healthcare programmes to increase fertility and lower mortality, but also to raise the standard of living of all Russians and to carry out “a determined struggle against poverty in the country”.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Mikhail Prokhorov, the only independent candidate, said he would introduce tax advantages for families with three children or more.

But only time will tell just how serious Russia’s demographic problem will prove to be, or whether any of the suggested policies will really have any impact. 

Source: Al Jazeera