Russia’s demographic crisis is far from over, argues a new report on the country’s demographic situation. Here’s what Russia can do to boost fertility and reduce mortality.

Will Russia be able to overcome demographic crisis? Photo: RIA Novosti

Even though Russia has seen a significant improvement in its demographic situation during the period from 2006 to 2012, with a 30 percent increase in total fertility rate, U.S. and Russian experts still see reason to be concerned about Russia’s demographic situation.

“Despite the positive dynamics of the birth rate, the crisis is not over, and Russia is on the brink of new threats,” reads a debut report (“Will It Be Too Late in 10 years?”) presented by the Research Laboratory of Political Demography and Social Macro-Dynamics (PDSM) during a December conference on political demography at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA).

“Today, we have half as many 15-year old people as 25-year olds!” the report warns. “The conclusion is evident: Russia has just two or three years to strengthen family, raise fertility and improve productivity labor or in several decades, Russia will become a hopelessly aged and poorer country, at risk of being unable to preserve its territory and its heritage.”

The authors of the report include prominent U.S. and Russian scholars and academics, such as Jack Goldstone of George Mason University and Andrey Korotayev and Julia Zinkina of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In addition, authors include other experts and officials from RANEPA, the Institution of Scientific and Social Assessment (ISSA) and the working group “Family policy and childhood” (an expert council formed by Russia’s government).    

According to the report, the increase in Russia’s total fertility rate will not be able to respond to the very high mortality rate and Russia’s accelerating decline in population.

“Russia’s mortality rate remains very high by world standards, and the problem is not so much in the age structure and aging of the population, as, first of all, in the extremely high mortality rate of working-age males,” the report says pointing out that Russia rates 22nd highest in the world in mortality rate, which is higher than Mali, Burundi or Cameroon.

“It is striking that mortality among Russian males has been so high,” said Michael Teitelbaum, a research fellow from Harvard Law School, who took the floor with a keynote lecture at the RANEPA conference. “I know it’s correlated with some things that are very difficult to change like alcohol, for example. And it should be clearly a major focus of Russian health care to reduce adult male mortality.”

In addition, the report outlines Russia’s current demographic situation and scenarios. According to the worst-case scenario, Russia’s population might decline to 100 million people by the early 2040s, while an optimistic scenario presents a set of effective measures to support birth rate, reduce mortality and bring Russia’s population to nearly 155 million by 2040.

“Thus, the price of decisions on demographic policy is the lives of more than 50 million of our fellow citizens, that is, more than one third of the population,” the reports argues.

The Russian government should take certain measures very urgently because of a pending demographic dip, according to Andrey Korotayev of the Russian Academy of Sciences, one of the authors of the report. In the future, Russia will have to deal with the consequences of “the catastrophic decline in fertility that took place in the 1990s.”

This generation is entering adult life now – a fact that is already felt by Russian universities that saw a twofold decrease in the number of students getting into Russian universities, Korotaev explains.

“The number of women in the active child-bearing age is expected to be reduced almost twice by the 2020s,” Korotaev warns. “And it is a very serious challenge for Russia, so certain measures should be taken immediately. And this is one of the main messages of the report.”

Goldstone explains that the report was prompted by concerns that “family support measures are costly and there was not confidence that they were really working.”

In order to avoid the negative scenarios and make the country’s demographic policy more effective, the report offers some proposals that include: reducing emigration and increasing internal migration; boosting access to health care and emergency care; creating a more efficient family policy (allowances and tax benefits for families combining work and childcare); reducing use of alcohol and tobacco; and modernizing the health care system.

Goldstone and his Russian counterparts believe that urban areas are the most vulnerable to low fertility and high mortality, partly because the existing measures have not been as effective as desired there.

According to Zinkina of the Russian Academy of Sciences, urban fertility is lagging behind especially in cities with more than one million people – especially Moscow and St. Petersburg - due to the high cost of living.

“If you are not already well-off to afford yourself a new flat or to take a mortgage loan, the maternity capital won’t help because it’s too small,” she explains.

Russia still needs to improve its birth rate. Photo: PhotoXPress

This problem is correlated with another of Russia’s challenges: a high abortion rate resulting from unintended pregnancies. Supporting women with unintended pregnancies is crucial to prevent abortion and persuade them to decide in favor of giving birth, Zinkina explains.

Goldstone believes that Russia’s abortion rate is much higher than other countries at the same level of development. He agrees that family support bonuses may have a significant impact in reducing or halting abortions. “And this appears to be a very significant factor and very favorable for population development,” he said.

“There is a lot of pressure with Russia’s economic growth slowing to save money, but we believe that not spending money to support fertility is like cutting off our feet to save money on shoes,” Goldstone argues. “It will work in the short run, but it will destroy your future in the long run.”

Russia can learn from the U.S. and Europe

The report suggests that tackling Russia’s demographic crisis requires resolving two challenges, “which are generally hard to resolve at the same time – to give birth to a large number of children and to build a new model economy.” The report suggests that it is reasonable to rely on international experience.

“The model of the American ‘baby boom’ of the 1960s – when widespread prosperity and opportunities for job and housing led families to commonly have more children than previous generations – and of France and the Scandinavian countries where extensive policies for family support and child care have produced the highest fertility levels in Europe, are worth trying to emulate,” the report concludes.

All of the authors of the report agree that Russia should take into account international experience in handling demographic problems to figure out which measures work and which don’t.

In this context, Goldstone argues that Russia and the U.S. have enormous potential for collaboration. According to him, state-of the-art public health measures in Russia could be adopted based on American and European models, particularly, for care of chronic heart diseases and other major killers of working-age men.

“There is enormous room for sharing knowledge of what works in health care with regard to chronic illness, control of alcoholism, care of the elderly,” he said. “This is the areas of concern of all industrialized countries.”

Daria Khaltourina, the head of the Monitoring of Global and Regional Risks Group at the Russian Academy of Sciences, echoes Goldstone. She argues that politics should not prevent Russia and the United States from collaborating in demography and public health.

“Medicine and public health should be out of politics like the Red Cross organization,” said Khaltourina who also contributed to the report. “And such big countries like the United States and Russia should work together in this field.”

Khaltourina argues that the U.S. and Russia are likely to face the same demographic problems such as a declining fertility rate, so that exchange of experience would be a good sign for both sides.

“The U.S. should pay much more attention to international experience because their health care system is not effective,” she added pointing out that the U.S. spends more money for health care than other European counties and still can’t achieve desirable results.

Harvard Law School’s Michael Teitelbaum believes that the two countries could collaborate, but “the systems are so different” and this complicates the situation, which is “a big obstacle.”

“When it comes to policy, I don’t how one can collaborate between governments directly, because demographic policies are very domestic policies,” he told Russia Direct. “So, governments could exchange opinions and views, but I don’t think they can collaborate in that sense.” Teitelbaum sees the American health care system as inefficient and questions if it could be a good model for Russia to follow.

Brian Grim, Senior Research and Director of Cross-National Data at Pew Research Center, is more optimistic about U.S.-Russia collaboration in demography and public health.

“I think that discussions on religion, demography and health are entirely possible,” he argues pointing out that the big differences between the demographics of Russia and the United States give more things to talk about and find common ground.