May 08, 2006

Demographic Woes

Demographic Woes

Adding Up Russia's Odd Demographics

Russia's natural population decline, which could total 30 percent by 2035, according to the grimmest forecasts, is being partially offset through immigration. But Russian legislators did not seem to see the silver lining on this grey cloud as they set about discussing Russia's new law on migration.

Over 20 million persons migrate to Russia each year, half of them illegally, Federal Migration Service head Konstantin Romodanovsky told Duma deputies, as reported by RIAN. This post-Soviet immigration wave is carrying in ethnic Russians, stuck in other republics after collapse of the USSR, where they often face discrimination, and guest workers from poorer ex-Soviet republics, whose earnings make major contributions to home countries' income. Money transfers home by guest workers in Russia account for 20 percent of Georgia's GDP, and 30 percent of Moldova's. Tadzhiks manage to send back twice the amount of their country's state budget. There are no official figures readily available on what private Chinese traders make throughout Russia, legally or otherwise.

On the flip side, there are many stories of "slave market" abuse growing out of this massive influx of foreign workers. Employers have been known to confiscate the passports of migrant workers and make them toil for little more than food and shelter. Meanwhile, Russians are increasingly unhappy about migrant communities controlling various parts of the economy. Ponaehali tut has become a common expression for exasperation about newcomers. This, combined with the government's careful stoking of Russian nationalism, translates into a generally hostile attitude towards migrants, and even hate crimes. Azeris, Armenians, Georgians, and other peoples from the Northern Caucasus — lumped together under the derogatory term Kavkaztsy — are regularly subjected to verbal, psychic and physical abuse. Dark-skinned international students at Russian univesities, mostly from Africa and the Arab world, the BBC reports, are also quite vulnerable. Dozens of beatings and even killings of international students have been reported throughout Russia in the past years.

Even the tide of immigrants cannot stop Russia's population decline. It has fallen by about a million persons a year since 1998 — just part of the largest peacetime population loss in Europe since the plagues, for which there is no discernible end at sight, according to a recent report in Foreign Affairs. As of January 2006, Russia's population stood at 142.3 million. The current birth- to-death ratio in Russia is 3:5, according to Nikolay Gerasimenko, deputy chairman of the State Duma's health committee, ITAR-TASS reports. Today, the average Russian man is expected to live to the age of 59, a woman to 72. According to the Foreign Affairs report, the number of healthy children born in Russia today is lower than before the discovery of penicillin. The ratio is also adversely affected by unhealthy lifestyles, a less-than-adequate health care system and the fact that so many middle-aged and elderly Russians live in poverty.

And so, as the situation with Russia's own declining population becomes more grave, the country will be forced to accept and harness immigration as a way to keep the engine of the economy running. In 2005, over half a million persons were granted Russian citizenship, according to the Federal Migration Service.

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