Russia's Ethnic Republics
The looming decline in the number of Russian births, the increase in emigration, and the rise in the number of births among non-Russians and especially Muslim groups will spark “inter-ethnic conflicts” in the Russian Federation that will have “a more devastating effect” than those in Europe, according to Nataliya Shishkina.
An expert at the Moscow Center for Scientific Political Thought and Ideology, she says that this prospect means that even seemingly small decisions on demographic issues can have a major impact on the political life of the country, something she suggests the government does not appear to understand.
Shishkina’s comment was prompted by a statement of Russian Labor and Social Security Minister Maksim Topilin last week that the government believes it has achieved all it can from spending money to boost the birthrate, that it can reduce spending in that area, and that it will nonetheless not pay a major price by doing so.
Topilin had been one of the leading advocates of what Russians call “material capital” incentives as recently as the end of last year, Shishkina notes, and his comments suggest that the government has now turned against that idea, possibly as a result of budgetary stringencies, and will end that program altogether. It has not done so yet, however.
Russian officials have celebrated the slight rise in the number of births in 2013 (23,000) and in the first eleven months of 2014 (37,000) and the fact that in the latter period the number of births per 1,000 exceeded the number of deaths, 13.3 to 13.1. But in doing so, they ignored that this pattern was much worse than in Soviet times and that it is not sustainable for the country as a whole.
The number of births and the birthrate rose “only in certain regions,” and those were not the regions where ethnic Russians predominate but rather where members of Muslim nationalities are the most numerous. Thus, even if the overall rate has ticked up, that masks that the ethnic balance in the population is shifting against the Russians.
Even more seriously, Shishkin says, this uptick isn’t going to last and births are not going to exceed deaths for the next decade or more unless something unexpected happens. Indeed, the economic crisis, rising emigration, and the continuing immigration of Muslims all point in the opposite direction.
“More than 75 percent of all children are born to mothers between the ages of 20 and 34,” she points out and notes that “deaths ceased to outnumber births” only in the last two years where most mothers were born between 1978 and 1992, years of relatively high fertility rates compared to now.
But “the lowest birthrates were in 1998-1999.” As a result, there will be ever fewer women in the prime childbearing age group over the next decade, and so, the number of children who will be born in Russia will fall unless the birthrate is pushed up significantly, something the government does not appear to have much interest in doing.
That means, Shishkina says, that “in 2015 and the following years one should expect a serious decline in the number of births,” a new “demographic pit,” especially if the government cuts spending on maternal capital and the economic situation remains critical, prompting ever more young women (and men) to emigrate.
Boosting help to poor families with children might help, but the government has not been willing to invest in this group sufficiently, she continues, as is demonstrated by “the gradually growing number of poor families with children and the reduction in the number of poor childless families.
The decline in the number of births reflects not only the low number of women born in 1999 and the difficult economic conditions Russia now finds itself in, she says. It also reflects fundamental problems with the Russian medical system, which increasingly charges people for its use, something neo-liberal economists are celebrating.
But the commercialization of medicine just like the commercialization of education, although “a mantra” for some, is hitting many Russians hard, reducing their willingness to have children and having a negative impact on their own health as well.
Whatever the government thinks, Shishkina says, getting the Russian birthrate to European levels is insufficient. Not only is Russia far larger and adjoining countries like China with enormous populations, but the shifting balance of ethnic groups is certain to lead to ethnic clashes and conflicts.
That is already happening in Europe, but the impact will be far worse in Russia, Shishkina argues, given Moscow’s failure to deal with existing conflicts in the North Caucasus, the economic crisis, and demographic decay. In this situation, she says, “anything, even something insignificant at first glance, can become the spark.”