Friday, October 22, 2010

Window on Eurasia: To Solve Russia's Demographic Problems, Moscow Should Fight High Mortality Rather than Seek to Boost Low Birthrate, Expert Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, October 22 – If Russia is to slow or even reverse its demographic decline, a Moscow commentator says, it cannot rely on pro-natalist policies alone but much address super-high mortality rates among working-age Russian males that are now ten times higher than for the counterparts in developed countries.
In an article in “Svobodnaya pressa” today, Andrey Polunin points out that despite a slight uptick in the number of births in 2009, an increase linked more to a temporary increase in the number of women in prime years for childbirth rather than to the regime’s pro-natalist policies, “Russia is slowly but surely dying out” (
For most of the last two decades, the Russian powers that be have tried to address the country’s demographic decline by trying to boost the birthrate, Polunin notes, but despite the “optimism” on this point expressed by President Dmitry Medvedev, such an approach “is practically useless.”
“Such measures [at best] produce a short-term effect,” Polunin points out. “Women give birth to a planned child at what they consider a profitable moment, but they do not become multi-child mothers.” Consequently, pro-natalist efforts, at least of the kind that Moscow has employed, are doing little or nothing to slow the country’s demographic decline.
But he argues that “it is possible to stop the withering away of Russia.” That is obvious if one remembers the observation of one expert that Russia has “European birthrates and African mortality rates” and then decides to focus on the latter. Were Russia to do that and reduce the mortality rates even to the levels of the 1980s, Russia would be growing, not declining.
Efforts to reduce mortality rates not only are possible but can be effective, Polunin says, and he points to the struggle against mortality that the European Union carried out from the 1970s to 2002. Over that period, mortality rates fell dramatically and life expectancy among both men and women increased “more than seven years.”
Russia has even a greater opportunity in this regard that the Europeans did. “Mortality among Russian men of working age exceeds the indicators of the developed countries by ten times and the figures in developing countries by five. Child mortality in Russia is twice as high as it is abroad, and the gap in life expectancy among men and women has reached 13 years.”
In his detailed essay, Polunin examines the situation in five areas where he suggests Russia could make real progress in reducing mortality rates. First of all, deaths on highways. Last year Russia lost more than 26,000 dead from road accidents. Eliminating all deaths on the roads is impossible, but reducing that figure is certainly possible, as the US has shown.
Second, deaths from alcohol. By several orders of magnitude, Russians die more often from alcohol than do residents of other countries. Officially, Russians of all ages consume an average of 18 liters of pure alcohol every year. Experts say the actual figure is closer to 30, and since most children don’t drink, the consumption of alcohol among adults is much higher.
Nikolay Gerasimenko, first deputy chairman of the Duma’s health committee, says that “mortality from alcohol has reached from 350,000 to 700,000 people every year,” and if one adds deaths in which alcohol combined with other problems, losses linked to alcohol are “higher still.”
Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, as unpopular as it was, cut the death rate from alcohol by 200,000 a year for five years, according to Health Minister Tatyana Golikova. That means that one million people lived who otherwise might have died. If a similar program were introduced now, the results would be similar.
“Could the government of the Russian Federation do this?” Polunin asks, and then says that obviously the answer is yes, “but somehow it isn’t doing so.”
Third, suicides. Last year, 35,000 Russians took their own lives – “or 29 for every 100,000 population,” a figure that is “twice greater than the international average” and one that is far greater than in the past except in the years of high Stalinism, 1937 and 1947 when Russian figures were also large.
“It is possible,” Polunin continues, that “a more democratic arrangement of society and more stable social-economic situation would reduce the number of suicides among [Russians]” to the level in the US or Canada (11-12 per 100,000. That would “save” another 17,000 lives for the future.
Fourth, deaths at work. Because Russian employers do not have to pay out large sums if a worker is injured or dies, “our employers prefer not to waste profit on ‘petty things’ like the introducing secure technology. As a result, many Russians die at work. Officially the number is 6,000, but in fact, Polunin says, the real figure may be as high as 190,000. Many could be saved.
And fifth, disappearances. Russian officials acknowledge that some 50,000 people disappear every year in that country, and experts say that almost all of them are dead, killed by others, a reflection of the fact that “the number of murders in Russia is three times that of the US and 19 to 20 times that of the countries of the European Union.”
That means that if Russia could reduce its violent crime to the level of the US, it would save “at a minimum,” 35,000 lives each year, and if it could cut murders to European levels, it could save “practically all of these 50,000,” something that would help the country’s demographic problems far more that pro-natalist pronouncements.
In sum, Polunin says that if Russia had “normal roads, a struggle with drunkenness, order in the system of insuring workers, and the de-criminalization of society,” that would result “at a minimum” in saving 353,000 lives every year. And it is possible that that number could be increased by eliminating medical mistakes as well as taking other steps.
As anyone can see, this would mean nearly “a half million lives saved each year” and that goal is “completely realistic” for the Russian Federation. If birthrates stay where they are, the country’s population would start growing again. “But for this, alas, Russia would have to become a completely different country.”

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