PUTIN and the future of Russia

Posted in Other | 03-Jul-06 | Author: Walter Laqueur

Walter Laqueur

Russian foreign policy has been quite active off late. It has reemerged as a major player in European politics (as its main oil and gas supplier) and in the Middle East, it has tried to bring pressure and to reestablish its preeminent position vis a vis the Ukraine, Georgia, Moldava and other parts of the former Soviet empire. It will play host next month to the annual meeting of the leading industrial powers, the Big Eight.

This did not come as a great surprise , the disintegration of the Soviet Union fifteen years ago was a great trauma and Moscow's wish to regain at least some of the influence and power that were lost, is in some ways only natural. In this endeavor the Kremlin has some strong cards not only as a energy supplier (as the North Sea oilfields get gradually exhausted its position will be even stronger) but also as the owner of a very considerable arsenal of nuclear and other such weapons. But it faces one fatal weakness: The population of Russia is shrinking faster than that of any other country—except Ukraine. According to United Nations projections the population of Yemen will be larger by mid century than that of Russia.

Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but there are two other factors which are not in doubt: Not only is the population shrinking, its composition is rapidly changing. Between 12 and 18% of the population of Russia is Muslim (the exact figures are unknown) and their birthrate is high. By the middle of the century, at least one out of four Russians will be a Muslim and they are beginning to assert their political claims. They are concentrated not only in the Caucasus but also the Volga region and the number of Azerbaidjanis in Moscow is larger than in Baku.

Lastly, while Greater Moscow is rapidly growing because living and working conditions (and incomes ) are so much better there than in the rest of the country, large stretches of this enormous country are getting depopulated. During the last decade some 11.000 villages and 290 cities have disappeared and some 10.000 more villages may follow in the years to come During the same period about one third of the population of the Russian Far East disappeared, and about 40% of the population of the Russian north. The population of Siberia is quickly declining; soon not many millions will be left between the Urals and the Pacific Ocean. These are not hospitable regions and it was always difficult to attract people to live there. But they are rich in minerals and if the Russians are leaving, chances are that others will move in.

It is interesting that the Russian authorities have become aware only off late of the demographic disaster they face. Perhaps the main reason was that the government is located in Moscow and Moscow has been growing by leaps and bounds; Greater Moscow is now one of the biggest conurbations in the world becoming one giant traffic jam in the process. There may be yet another reason—that it is so difficult to think of remedies to reverse the trend. In recent weeks there have been emergency meetings to deal with the situation; Primakov, a former prime minister and head of the KGB has declared that Russia may cease to exist in a few decades unless there is a drastic change.

President Putin in a state of the nation message has called the demographic problem the second greatest challenge facing the country (the greatest being the technological backwardness—and he could be wrong in his order of priorities). The Russian government has announced that it will spend 40 billion rubles on inducements to increase the birth rate. Russian women will get a monthly stipend of 110 dollars for each child and a one time payment of 9.000 dollars. However , in this case 40 billion rubles will be far from sufficient .

But according to public opinion polls about half of Russian women still do not want to have children because of the the high cost of living and for other reasons. Stalin provided premiums for mothers of more than two children and other rulers in history have engaged in such “natalist” policies but without lasting success. In France and Sweden significant measures have been taken to encourage population growth and assist mothers to continue their professional careers. But the results have not been overwhelming.

Most European societies face aging and population decline but nowhere is the situation so acute and dramatic as in Russia.

“Russia for the Russians” is the slogan of the Russian right wing (and many who do not even consider themselves of the right). But it is a slogan which does not make much sense given the demographic trends and the shrinking of the number of ethnic Russians. Where will the borders of Russia be by the end of the century? Will it be back to the Urals, or even further west as it was under Ivan the Terrible? Energy resources are very important in the contemporary world . But if the number of Russians is falling below a certain minimum, Russia in its present borders will no longer exist. Nature and politics do not tolerate a vacuum.