Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Muslims No Longer a ‘Demographic Reserve’ For Russia, Experts Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 6 – Despite what many still believe, neither immigration from Muslim nations in Central Asia and the Caucasus nor birthrates among Russia’s own Muslim nations represents a “demographic reserve” for the country, and consequently, Moscow must move beyond its current pro-natalist policies if it hopes to stem Russia’s demographic decline.
At a press conference last week devoted to the release of a UN Population Fund study on Russia, Natalya Zubarevich of the Moscow Independent Institute of Social Policy said the notion that Muslim regions within and outside Russia provide the country with a demographic reserve was “an illusion” (slon.ru/articles/344224/).
Even in Daghestan, the most Muslim of all North Caucasian republics, birthrates are declining and converging on all-Russian ones that are insufficient to maintain the population at the current level. And “already in the next generation,” Zubarevich said, “we will see how those residents of the Caucasus who have resettled in cities will copy the model of behavior there.”
Consequently, “we have no demographic reserve” from Muslim regions within the country, and the possibility of attracting immigrants from Central Asia and the South Caucasus, while significant, is likely to help only the capitals. Few immigrants, she said, are prepared to live outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, which now attract 78 percent of all legal immigrants.
Another participant in the press conference, Nikolay Gerasimenko, the first deputy chairman of the Duma health committee, said bluntly that “the birthrate will fall whatever we do,” despite the uptick that has been observed in the last four years as an echo of higher births in 1985-1990 (slon.ru/articles/344217/).
The Duma official said that he “expects high birthrates to continue for two more years, [but] unfortunately since December [2009], there has been a slowing of the birthrate.” As a result, since that time, officials have concluded that “mortality has exceeded berths by 22,000, driving the population down.
A third participant in the press conference, Sergey Zakharov, the deputy director of the Moscow Institute of Demography, said that the Russian government must move beyond its pro-natalist policies in order to reduce premature deaths and thus allow for population growth in that way (slon.ru/articles/344222/).
Such an approach, he pointed out, will require addressing alcohol consumption, the use of abortions for birth control, access to medical care, and other issues that are both expensive and likely to have an impact only over a relatively longer period, making them politically less attractive but absolutely critical for Russia’s future.
Gerasimenko agreed. He noted that the Russian government does not have a program for lowering mortality rates. In addition to reducing alcohol consumption, he said, the authorities need to reduce the use of tobacco and increase access to medical care in order to “reduce the super high rates of morality,” although he too was pessimistic.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “the birthrate will fall [in Russia] whatever we do.” Fertility rates are unlikely to go up beyond 1.5 to 1.6 children per woman, a rate that does not guarantee replacement. And because so many of the mothers are ill, “they give birth to ill children,” whose life expectancies are less.
In a comment on these issues, Anatoly Vishnevsky of the Higher School of Economics tells “Kommersant” in an interview published today that in his view “medicine and the pension system are powerless” against Russia’s demographic decline and that the country’s only choice is to attract more immigrants (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1349576&NodesID=7).
Speaking on the occasion of the release of a report his institute has prepared, Vishnevsky says that “despite the positive tendencies of birth and death rates which have been noted in recent years, ‘the levels achieved are all the same far from what is wanted.’” Moreover, they are short term, and “the euphoria connected with [them] is unjustified.”
Vishnevsky says his pessimism reflects long term trends. Since 1910, “not a single generation of Russians has reproduced itself.” Since 2004, the number of women of reproductive age has fallen, and since 2007, “for the first time in a long period began the contraction of the number of people of working age.” He added that these trends will “rapidly accelerate.”
Consequently, the Moscow scholar concludes, “the single real resource for preventing the decline of the population is immigration. “There is no other,” he told “Kommersant,” and “if Russia does not want to lose its competitive position, it must find its place” in a world where “large-scale international migration” is the norm rather than the exception.

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