Russia’s Shrinking Population Mars Putin’s Superpower Ambitions

MOSCOW, Russia — Vladimir Putin is spinning a beguiling vision of Russia’s future that could reshape global economic and military realities.

He imagines his country as the core of a mighty “Eurasian Union,” a confederation of former Soviet states spanning two continents, from the Sea of Japan to the Baltic.

“We suggest creating a powerful supra-national union capable of becoming a pole in the modern world, and at the same time an effective bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific Region,” Putin wrote in the Moscow daily Izvestia earlier this month.

But Putin’s dream is hobbled by one big, inconvenient fact: Russia’s population is shrinking dramatically.

By mid-century there may not be enough working-aged adults to man the country’s factories or defend its borders. The decline is most pronounced in those areas that should constitute the heartland of the future Eurasian Union: Siberia and the Russian far east, which abut the teeming economic powerhouses of China, South Korea and Japan.

It’s tough just to get by with a shrinking population, no less re-establish yourself as a global power — especially in a sprawling neighborhood like Russia’s.

The former Soviet Union built cities and planted industries along its 2,600-mile border with China. It used the arbitrary powers of an authoritarian state to ensure that its claims of eternal suzerainty over those far-flung territories were anchored by concentrations of ethnic-Russians. But since the collapse of the USSR, the number of Russians inhabiting the eastern lands has plummeted by almost 20 percent. The young and best-qualified people have headed to Moscow in search of economic opportunity, and the exodus is accelerating.

Mother Russia appears in no condition to generate more warm bodies, even if the state was able to develop economic or other programs to entice Russians to return to Siberia.

Russian fertility rates have been falling for decades. They stood at 1.4 babies per woman in 2010, far below the 2.1 needed to naturally replenish the population. Death rates, particularly among males between the ages of 25 and 45, spiked in the post-Soviet period and still remain considerably higher than births. As a result, Russia’s population has been simultaneously contracting and aging. That’s a double-whammy that holds dire implications for Putin’s hopes of returning Russia to the world’s center stage as a great power.

Drowning in vodka

In 1991, Russia’s population was nearly 150 million. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s international database it’s currently just under 139 million. Projections show it plunging to 128 million in 2025, and to 109 million in 2050.

“Here in Russia we have a European birth rate, but an African death rate,” said Yury Krupnov, director of the independent Institute of Demography, Migration and Regional Development in Moscow.

“A special feature in Russia is the super-death rate for working age males, which is five times higher than the comparable rate in Europe and has crippling implications for our economic development.”

The astronomical mortality rate for young Russian men is due to a post-Soviet cocktail of bad news: deteriorating environmental conditions, collapsing health care, rising accidents due to decayed infrastructure and growing social violence.

But the single biggest cause, according to a 2009 article in The Lancet, a respected medical journal, is the post-Soviet explosion in alcoholism. Extreme even by traditionally hard-drinking Russian standards, alcohol abuse leads to an estimated 600,000 premature deaths each year.

Some warn of even more alarming consequences for the future from a population drowning in vodka. “If this tendency continues, Russia will die out,” said Svetlana Bocherova, chair of Good Without Borders, a Moscow-based family advocacy group.

“By the 2020s the schools will be empty of children. By the next decade there won’t be enough workers or soldiers. By 2050, we won’t have enough people to call ourselves a country.”

Cash for moms

In hopes of reversing these trends, Putin introduced a series of measures during his first two terms as president. These include huge cash bonuses — typically about $10,000, enough to buy a small flat in a provincial Russian town — for women who have more than two children, and generous resettlement programs for ethnic Russians who choose to be repatriated from former Soviet republics in the Baltics and central Asia.

Putin’s successor, Dmitry Medvedev, launched a tough anti-alcohol campaign reminiscent of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s draconian attempts to wean his countrymen from the vodka bottle.

And there have been some successes in the past few years. Death rates have stabilized, birth rates rose markedly over the past decade, and male life expectancy has jumped from a low of 58 years in 2003 to 63 today.

“There are some positive changes, but they’re not enough to overcome the negative trends,” said Anatoly Vishnevsky, a demographer with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “In fact, the growth in birth rates is already falling off. We need more comprehensive solutions.”

Eurasian ambitions

This may be where Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union comes in. The former Soviet Union drew heavily on labor and military reserves from its teeming, mainly-Muslim central Asian republics, where high birth rates are still driving rapid population growth. Even today, most construction and other unskilled work around prosperous Moscow is done by migrant workers from Tajikistan and other poverty-stricken but still largely Russian-speaking former Soviet republics.

Some analysts suggest that a formal confederation of states under Russian hegemony would allow the Kremlin to restore some Soviet-era economic synergies, including orderly transfers of labor — on a temporary basis — from populous central Asian republics to zones of Russian economic development.

That might avoid the painful political issue of formulating an immigration policy similar to those of the European Union or the United States, in which large numbers of outside workers come, stay and often place themselves on a path to citizenship.

“There is strong social resistance in Russia to allowing permanent immigrants from Asian countries,” said Vishnevsky. “This is going to be problem No. 1 in Russian politics for a long time to come.”

But Putin’s scheme may not offer any solution for the growing problem of depopulation in Russia’s own vast Asian lands. Analysts point out that efforts to entice ethnic Russians from former Soviet republics to settle in Siberia or the Russian far east have achieved meager results.

“Of course ethnic Russian immigrants prefer to come to Moscow, where the opportunities are, and not go to some backward place in the middle of Siberia which is being abandoned by its own inhabitants,” said Nikolai Petrov, a regional expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

In the long run, Russia’s demographic dilemma may force Putin to drop Soviet revivalism, slash government controls and initiate genuine liberal market reforms, said Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economist with the Institute for Contemporary Development, a Moscow think tank linked to Medvedev.

“We don’t require that every square kilometer of Russia be inhabited, but for solid strategic reasons we do need the Russia-China border to be populated” with Russians, he says. “If Russia wants to be a part of that economically dynamic region, the only way is to bite the bullet, open up and reform.

“It may be possible to reverse our dismal demographic trends, but it will require fundamental changes in the way our leaders think. We need to create economic opportunities, and drop all these grand plans based on state methods. It’s a historic task facing our nation, and there isn’t much time left to come to grips with it.”

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