Sunday, September 07, 2008


An article in the New York Times on Russia.

The article seems to assume there are only two possible ways to view the recent conflicts between Russia and Georgia on the one hand, and between Russia and Ukraine on the other.

It is either an expansionist, belligerent power whose ambitions are insatiable, or a “normal” state seeking to restore influence and regional control along its borders, commensurate with its growing wealth and power.
Whichever it is, Russia is wealthy, powerful and potentially dangerous.
Or perhaps there’s another explanation: that there’s all the difference in the world between an enfeebled and defensive empire, and a nation emboldened by vast wealth and brimming with resentment at past humiliations.
I think this analysis is essentially inadequate.

The Chronicle asked a variety of experts to comment on Russia's prospects for the coming decade. Once again, most commentators emphasized economics and politics.
But today's Russia, with a gross domestic product of more than $1.3-trillion in 2008 (compared with a low of $200-billion under Boris N. Yeltsin) has barged back into the ranks of the world's 10 largest economies; in purchasing power, it is closing in on Britain, at No. 6.
However, if demographics is destiny, only two commentators even mentioned the one factor which is going to shape Russia's future.
Russia will be weaker in 10 years. Its population is falling by a million people a year. From a Slavic Russian-chauvinist point of view (i.e., that held by many senior officials), even that dismal statistic is too optimistic. Russia's Muslim minority, currently around a fifth of the population, is growing fast, just as "ethnic Russians" are shrinking in number.
I went back to this old New Yorker article (emphasis added).
n 1991, on the day the Soviet Union was dissolved, Russia’s population stood at a hundred and forty-nine million. Without the huge wave of immigration from the former Soviet republics which followed, the country would have lost nearly a million people each year since then. If Russia is lucky, by 2050 the population will have fallen by only a third, to a hundred million. That is the most optimistic government scenario. More realistic predictions suggest that the number will be closer to seventy-five or eighty million—a little more than half the current population. And none of these figures allow for the impact of AIDS, which remains, in many ways, unrecognized and unreckoned with. The World Bank has estimated that by 2020 at least five million people will be infected with H.I.V.; a more pessimistic, but equally plausible, figure is fourteen million. Even without AIDS as a factor, working-age people are starting to disappear. (In the United States, fifteen per cent of men die before they retire; in Russia, nearly fifty per cent die.) By 2015, the number of children under the age of fifteen will have fallen by a quarter. There will be at least five million fewer people in the workforce. The Russian Ministry of Education projects a thirty-per-cent drop in school enrollment. Russian women already bear scarcely more than half the number of children needed to maintain the current population, and the situation will soon get worse. Between 2010 and 2025, the number of women between twenty and twenty-nine—the primary childbearing years—will plummet from eleven and a half million to six million. Unless there is sudden new immigration on a gigantic scale, fertility will fall even from today’s anemic level

There is precious little mere politicians can do to reverse trends as long-term as these, and Russia's politicians seem to have little will to do what they could do. One option is immigration, but a country which defines itself in terms of its ethicity can hardly do that. The Pew Centre projects that Whites will be a minority in the USA by 2050. I can't see the Russians reacting calmly to such a development in their country.

So, what is Russia? An empire using oil revenues to expand its sphere of influence? Or a new Ottoman empire, a country with an imploding population, which can barely expect to maintain its current borders? Is it a belligerent, expansionist power, or a country keenly aware of its fate, and staging incidents in a desperate effort to deter its neighbours from exploiting its inevitable decline?

Afterthought: Or none of the above? Or all of the above? Does it even make any sense to talk about the motivations of a country?

And as other ethnicities begin to become an even larger component of Russia's population, will ethnic Russians show even less enthusiasm for democracy? And what will that do for relations between the various ethnicities in the country?

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