Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Transformation of Russia (Updated and Bumped)

Ilan Berman writes at the Washington Times about where Russia is headed:

... the Russian Federation is fast approaching a massive social and political upheaval, one that promises to be as transformative as the Soviet Union’s demise some two decades ago. Russia’s coming crisis is driven by the convergence of three trends: 
Russia is dying. ... Health standards are abysmal, and life expectancy in Russia is nothing like it is in the West — just age 60 for men (less than in Botswana and Madagascar) and 73 for women, roughly the same as in Saudi Arabia. Alcoholism — the scourge of Soviet society — continues to ravage the country, with a death rate among Russia’s youth that is 35 times higher than among their counterparts in Europe. So does drug addiction. According to United Nations statistics, more than a fifth of all heroin consumed globally every year occurs in Russia. Prevalent, too, is a corrosive culture of abortion, with unofficial estimates placing the number of annual abortions at 2 million to 2.5 million — close to 2 percent of the Russian Federation’s potential population. 
In all, the country is contracting by close to half-a-million souls every year owing to both death and the emigration of its citizens (to Europe and beyond). At this rate, according to the Kremlin’s own estimates, Russia could lose a quarter of its population by the middle of this century. ... 
Russia is also transforming. The country is experiencing a radical change in its ethnic and religious composition. Today, Russia’s roughly 21 million Muslims are still a distinct minority. Comparatively robust birthrates have put Muslims on track to account for a fifth of the country’s population by the end of this decade, and possibly a majority by midcentury. 
Such a demographic revolution will fundamentally change Russia’s character. ...The result is an increasingly restive Muslim minority that has little connection to — or love for — the Russian state. 
Finally, the Chinese are coming. Over the past two decades, Russia’s population east of the Ural Mountains has declined by a fifth, and now stands at some 25 million, or some six inhabitants per square mile on average. This depopulation has sharpened the strategic competition over the country’s resource-rich east, which is now increasingly coveted by an energy-hungry China. ... 
 I think this means that Russia may become much more protective of the advantages it possesses, even to resorting to military force.

Update (Oct. 16, 2013): David P. Goldman responds to Berman, arguing that Berman is being too pessimistic:
Russia, to be sure, is in crisis. But Russia has been in crisis since Peter the Great build modern Russia with one foot in Siberia and the other in Eastern Europe. It is not a nation-state but an empire, badly constituted from the beginning. Russia always taxed its European provinces to support uneconomic expansion in its Far East, a policy that collapsed between the 1905 war with Japan and the 1914-1918 war with Germany. Russia regained its eastern influence in 1945 and lost it in 1989. 

Its population has declined from a peak of 149 million in 1992 to 143 million in 2012 and threatens to decline even faster. Russia’s demographics are weak, although it is worth asking whether they are much weaker than in 1945, after Russia had lost 15% of its total population in war, not to mention a great deal of its productive capacity and infrastructure. That didn’t stop the Soviet Union from building thermonuclear bombs and ICBMs and beating America into space. The Soviet economy suffered from the equivalent of arteriosclerosis, but it nearly won the Cold War. Putin’s economy has suffered a string of self-inflicted failures, but that doesn’t remove Russia from the field. 

Russia was down but not altogether out after the Soviet Union broke up, and the self-consoling triumphalism that has characterized American accounts of the country has proven a poor guide to policy-making. Ilan Berman’s new volume – really an essay stretched to book length by long appendices – weighs Russia’s recent return to world power status against a projected long-term disaster which, in my view, will not occur within the policy horizon.
 He goes on to address Berman's specific points, noting weaknesses to each argument. For instance, he notes that the fertility rate has increased:

Russia’s total fertility rate now stands at around 1.7 births per female, against a European average of 1.5, up from a 1999 nadir of less than 1.8. That portends a decline, albeit a far slower decline that most analysts expected. It is not Hungary, where Magyar fertility stands at barely over 0.8 births per female, or half the Russian level. The fertility rate would have to rise to about 2.5 to compensate for the demographic air pocket of the 1990s, and that goal is nearly impossible to achieve.

... Russian demographics are a moving target. As Berman notes, “In 2012, for the first time since the fall of the USSR, live births outnumbered deaths in Russia. They did so modestly (the country’s population grew by just over two hundred thousand between January and September 2012), but it was enough for Kremlin officials to proclaim that their country’s demographic fortunes had been reversed.” That is surely not the case, but the strategic impact will be felt a generation hence at earliest.

Part of the bounce in Russia’s birth rate during the past several years is due to the government’s offer of the equivalent of a US$9,500 cash award to families upon the birth of a second or third child. But the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church almost certainly played an important role. There is a deep and consistent link between faith and fertility throughout the industrial world, and the restoration of religion in Russia is a new and critical factor in the country’s demographics.

The threat of the growth of Muslims is also overstated:

The recovery of Russian fertility, though, appears equally distributed among its regions, and implies that a Muslim majority is a more distant prospect that demographers earlier expected. Muslim birth rates, moreover, have shown the steepest decline of any segment of the world population, ....
He then discusses the most viable options for Russia to increase its population: absorb Belarus, with its 15 million ethnic Russians, and western Ukraine (ethnic Russians make up 20% of the Ukraine).

Goldman also disagrees that war with China is inevitable, noting that, instead, Russia and China may turn to each other in a coalition to control central Asian Muslims and collaborate on weapon systems.

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