Friday, 23 February 2007

Russia - Nation in Crisis

Russia has a problem. In fact, it has a whole heap of problems that could see it become less than half the nation it is now by 2050.

A recent BBC article, Russia Funds Health Crisis Plan, outlines Russia's falling life expectancy and endemic ill-health. As the BBC reports:

The health ministry says average life expectancy for Russian men is less than 60 years - about 15 years lower than in most other industrialised countries.

Life expectancy for Russian women is about 72.
Average life expectancy for men has been somewhere between 56 and 58 since WWII. The reason? They drink themselves into the grave. Russia's women have always been more sensible.

Many diseases have spread rapidly since the Soviet Union's collapse.

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said: "We aim to tackle the problem seriously - and that includes providing adequate funding for the fight against TB, diabetes, cancers, HIV and viral hepatitis."

In returning to its pre-Soviet republican roots, Russia has taken its eye off the ball in some areas with potentially catastrophic consequences. Their nuclear arsenal is becoming increasingly unstable, their armed forces are in serious decline and their navy is a disaster. They have always had a large drug problem so that doesn't post-date the collapse of the Soviet Union but in those days they arrested you and sent you off to the Gulags if you took drugs. These days people are left on the street.

Experts point out that much of Russia's health crisis is the result of unhealthy lifestyles, especially very high rates of smoking and alcohol abuse.

There are also environmental issues - last year, a survey by a US research centre said that half of the world's most polluted places were in the former Soviet Union.
When the Iron Curtain fell Western nations were truly shocked at the environmental damage being done in the Soviet empire. Some pollution was measured at a thousand times Western levels. This is no surprise and is the expected result of socialist rule. Governments are far less effective at looking after the environment than individuals. In the West the greatest boon for environmental health has been the ownership of private property and the proper management of forests and the like.

In an article from last year, Russia Faces Demographic Disaster, also from the BBC:

The country's population is declining by at least 700,000 people each year, leading to slow depopulation of the northern and eastern extremes of Russia, the emergence of hundreds of uninhabited "ghost villages" and an increasingly aged workforce.

Now, one of Russia's leading sociologists has warned that the country's population may halve by the middle of this century.

Official Russian forecasts, along with those from international organisations like the UN, predict a decline from 146 million to between 80 and 100 million by 2050.

This decline will see Russia face an even greater economic crisis than it has now. It also creates a situation where it won't be able to defend itself effectively from an expansionist China, which will be better armed, manned and funded than Russia in years to come.

Mr Perevedentsev explained that people have the majority of children between certain definable ages. In Russia, this is generally earlier than in Western countries. But the percentage of potential parents of child-bearing age within the Russian population is itself so small that state-funded efforts, by definition, can bring only temporary results.

Mr Perevedentsev points to how the Soviet government, at the beginning of the 1980s, undertook similar measures in response to concerns over falling birth-rates. They produced a mini "baby boom", lasting just two or three years, before the long-term decline reasserted itself.
Russia's demographic problems are no different to other European nations. In order to sustain a population at its current level there needs to be 2.1 children per family. Greece has a real problem at just 1.1 and the overall European average is 1.5. Why is this a problem? Isn't a declining population good for the environment? Well, not really. The fact is that the older people in a population are paid for by the taxpayers of the current workforce. As this workforce ages the new generation takes on the duty of paying for those that have retired. To use the example of Greece. The amount of GDP it will take to pay for their aged population will grow from around 5% now to 25% in just a couple of generations. That is entirely unsustainable with the result being that the old will be very poorly cared for if at all. Poor populations have a much greater impact on the environment than rich ones.

Russia's problems are severe and can only be reversed by a concerted effort to ensure truly free markets so that they can have the revenue basis to repair their health care system and a focus on giving sizable benefits to those families having children.

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