Friday, April 01, 2005

Russia watching 

Following up on my post from a few days ago where I wrote:

"As the Soviet Union was an amalgam of numerous republics centered around the core of Russia, so Russia itself is in reality an amalgam of dozens of autonomous republics, regions and ethnic enclaves centered around the core of the old medieval kingdom of Muscovy, the Russia proper.

"What Putin fears - and on that he's probably right - is that the advent of true democracy in Russia itself will mean the territorial disintegration of the state, as everyone from the autonomous Tartar region to Siberia will, for various historical, ethnic, religious, political and economic reasons, seek their own future, free from Kremlin's shackles."
Ukraine's "Kyiv Post" now editorializes:

"It must be unsettling, looking out at the world from the Kremlin. The pleasing view, to which you've so long been accustomed, keeps shifting. Just 18 months ago, the ancient verities still held, with Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan still in the Russian fold, all of them members of a community of nations whose actions were to a large extent dictated by Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been known to wear his nostalgia for a Russian - indeed, for a Soviet - empire on his sleeve, could go to sleep each night lulled by a sense of the rightness of the order of things...

"What we're seeing with these serial revolts is the actual, as opposed to the formal, disintegration of the Soviet Union. It was one thing for the empire to fall apart on paper in 1991. It was another for the former Soviet peoples to reach a spot where they could conceive of a life free of the trappings of Soviet authority: the presence of old-style bosses like Askayev (and Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych), the rule by stultifying bureaucracy, the endless cynicism, the wretched leftover Soviet rhetoric, the dreary sense of the inevitability of continued USSR-style misrule. It took 13 and 14 years for people to get to the point where they were willing to bury the communist corpse for good."
(for another macro-perspective see this piece by the American Enterprise Institue's Russia expert Leon Aron) Elsewhere, the "Kyiv Post" thinks that Belarus might be the next democratic domino, which will not make Vladimir Putin happy, as he witnesses the evaporation of Russia's "sphere of influence". But, of course, as I pointed out earlier, what's truly at stake is not Russia's informal empire but the very survival of Russia itself.

Territorial disintegration, however, is not the only danger faced by Russia - it's also depopulation of the country. Recently, Mikhail Zurabov, Russia's Health and Social Development Minister raised the alarm about
the country's shrinking workforce, and the social and economic impact this will have:

"After growing for four years, the share of the country's population that is of working age will start to fall away in 2009, Zurabov said at a news conference. But he warned that the flow of workers from former Soviet republics, which has so far helped to mask the country's acute labor shortage, may thin, too...

"Hundreds of thousands of workers from countries such Moldova, Ukraine and Tajikistan are employed in manual jobs in the construction and trade industries in Russia, doing work that Russians snub due to low pay. 'However, as the economic situation stabilizes in these countries, it is becoming difficult for Russia to compete with what these countries pay their own citizens,' Zurabov said."
Just how bad is the situation? Vladimir Yakovlev, the Minister for Regional Development explains:

"In its December 2004 estimated figures, the State Statistics Service put Russia's total working-age population at 79 million out of a total population of 144 million. Out of 20 million Russian men able to work, about 1 million men are currently serving prison sentences, while another 4 million men are serving in the armed forces and the police, rescue and secret services, Yakovlev said. Another 4 million men are chronic alcoholics, while 1 million men are drug addicts, he said."

In the Minister's words: "In a country with a population of 144 million people, soon there will be no one left to work."

Can't get enough of demographics? (it's a fascinating subject that only a few commentators are currently coming to grips with) Have a look at Nicholas Eberstadt's extensive article
"Russia, the Sick Man of Europe", which covers the collapse of Russia's fertility rates, the alarming increase in mortality rate, and the consequent decline of both the life expectancy as well as the population in absolute terms (on a related topic, see Eberstadt's paper where he tries to answer the question, "Does Demography Favor American 'Unipolarity'?").

Hence, Putin is not only fearing territorial disintegration of Russia, but also facing a demographic disintegration. No wonder the situation is so tense.

(Big Cat Chronicles has similar thoughts on
the break-up of Russia, and also has some thoughts on the return of the convergence of the church and the state in Russia. And as always, hat tips to Dan Foty).


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