Population plunge in Russia

Dire consequences: Future looks bleak as struggling country keeps registering more deaths than births.

February 13, 2000

RUSSIA'S out-of-control vodka drinking, its environmental nightmare and backward health conditions are taking a staggering toll on the country's population. Last year alone, 716,900 more people died than were born.

"Russia is on the verge of a demographic crisis, " warns Valentin Pokrovsky, chief of the Academy of Medical Sciences.

"If this trend does not change in 15 to 20 years, it will be very difficult for the country because for each working person, there will be one or two people who cannot work."

Leading Western demographers, including Georgetown University's Murray Feshbach, have long tracked Russia's negative population trend. Now a growing number of Russians are beginning to express alarm.

Gennady Zyuganov, the communist leader who is running against acting President Vladimir Putin in the March 26 election, argues than in just 10 years Russia has lost eight million people -- more than it did in World War I.

Unless action is taken, "there will be not just a collapse but further disintegration of the Russian Federation with the gravest global consequences," he said.

Many other European countries, too, are losing population. The trend is most drastic in the former socialist states. In the next 50 years, Romania's population, for example, is projected to decrease from 22.5 million to 16.4 million. Ukraine's also is expected to shrink.

Russia's anticipated drop from 145.6 million to 121 million over the next half century is particularly ominous. If the vast, resource-rich Asian portion becomes depopulated, the vacuum could prove irresistible to overpopulated aggressors.

So far, Russia's leaders have paid scant attention to this demographic time bomb, which was created by the Soviet period's misguided and destructive policies.

Indeed the crisis is likely to get worse.

The recent epidemic spread of airborne tuberculosis, coupled with staggering rates of HIV infection, suggest Russia's troubles are only beginning.

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