Vienna, October 1 – For much of the last decade, Russians have referred to the consequences of their country’s declining birthrate and rising mortality rate as “the Russian cross” – the coming together and crossing of these two trends that have driven that country’s total population down more or less continuously since 1993.
But now Moscow faces what might be called a second “Russian cross:” the intersection of continuing declines in the number of Russians and a new rise in the number of migrants from other parts of Russia or from abroad, a combination with potentially explosive consequences for that country’s future.
Russian demographers this week reported that natural decline of the Russian population – a statistic that captures the relationship between the number of births and the number of deaths – improved somewhat during the first six months of 2007 compared to the same period a year earlier (http://demoscope.ru/weekly/2007/0301/barom03.php).
In the first six months of 2006, they report, there were 415,000 more deaths than births among Russian citizens, while in the first half of 2007, that figure stood at 307,000 – an improvement that continues a general trend since 2000 rather than being the direct result of any recent policy changes.
Moreover, compared to last year, more regions of the country showed a natural increase in the population, 18 this year versus 13 a year ago. But as in the past, all the leaders in this area are non-Russian regions: Chechnya, Ingushetia, Tyva, Daghestan, and Khanty-Mansiik.
Two recent reports, however, cast a shadow on such claims. On the one hand, a close analysis of demographic statistics in a city near Moscow found that local officials are misstating the figures to make it appear the situation is improving (http://www.za-nauku.ru/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=87&Itemid=39).
How widespread that phenomenon may be is, of course, unknown with any certainty. But it is almost certainly to be found in more than one place and could be sufficiently common to distort the statistics that officials in the central Russian government are using.
And on the other hand, last Friday, a Leningrad military district official said that the declining number of young men in the draft pool might force Moscow to increase the length of required military service, a step that would certainly heat up the political situation in Russia now (http://www.regnum.ru, September 28).)
But however that may be, it is the second “Russian cross” that is likely to attract the greater attention in the coming months. After a period of relative decline in the growth of the country’s population as a result of immigration (1995-2003), the number of immigrants is again rising – and rising rapidly.
During the first six months of this year, there were 117,000 registered immigrants, compared to 67,000 in the first half of 2006, and 50,000 in the first half of 2005. While some of this increase may simply reflect a greater willingness on the part of officials to register new arrivals, senior officials are generally pleased by this trend.
These new arrivals thus make up for an increasing share of the continuing natural decline of Russian Federation residents. And at the same time, these new arrivals not only can fill otherwise vacant job positions but also help keep upward wage pressure and thus inflation down.
But the arrival of migrants, both from non-Russian regions of the Russian Federation moving into predominantly Russian regions and from Central Asia and the Caucasus moving into all locations in that country, often trigger xenophobic reactions among the indigenous populations, Russian or non-Russian.
That danger – which is reflected in the very name of one of the largest extreme Russian nationalist groups, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) – was the subject of a discussion organized in Irkutsk last Friday by the Open Russia-Irkutsk Foundation (http://babr.ru/?pt=news&event=v1&IDE=40172).
Emil Pain, director of the Moscow Center of Ethno-Political and Regional Research and one of Russia’s leading specialists on xenophobia, told the meeting that in contrast to its state-sponsored and imperial forms, “spontaneous nationalism” is on the rise “throughout the entire post-Soviet space.”
One of the reasons for this, he continued, is a fundamental shift in the way in which people evaluate their own status. In the past, he said, “people compared their life with earlier periods.” But now, Pain suggested, they compare their situations not with the past but with that of other people who live around them.
Such a shift in the basis of evaluating status, of course, reflects growing income inequality, and that in turn helps to explain why many “natives” in the Russian Federation are sensitive to what some of them see as the advantages that “migrants” have over them.
Other speakers expanded on why the attitudes of one ethnic group to another may, especially if the latter is perceived as an outsider, be hardening in the Russian Federation today. Oleg Vornonin, a specialist on Siberia at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said that one reason is that there is more talk than action about this problem.
But Svetlana Plokhotnikova, who heads the Irkutsk oblast department for work with ethnic communities, said that she and other officials there were doing everything to promote the integration of outsiders into Irkutsk society, particularly through a ramified system of more than 70 national-cultural autonomies.
She acknowledged, however, that her office had not been able to find a sufficient number of leaders “who could create inter-confessional youth organizations which would be capable of becoming an alternative to nationalist organizations.” Her admission on this point, of course, is likely to prove more significant than her claim of progress.