By Paul Goble
In addition to almost losing its only aircraft carrier this week not to hostile action but to incompetence and corruption in the military-industrial sector, the continuation of a long tradition extending back to at least 1905 as Richard Hough describes in The Fleet that Had to Die, Russia was confronted by reports of three other troubling trends:
First of all, Russians are falling into what Moscow media call “debt slavery” when they report instances of this in other countries. In the first half of this year, Russians took out 68.3 billion rubles (one billion US dollars) in new loans to cover payments on ones they already had (ria.ru/economy/20181030/1531734321.html).
That figure is 70 percent greater than during the same period in 2017 and suggests that Russians are going ever more deeply in debt to try to maintain their standards of living during the deepening economic crisis. In addition to this figure, Russians are refinancing existing loans at an increasing rate as well.
Second, Russia’s demographic decline is accelerating, with the number of births down 5.2 percent during the first nine months of this year compared to the same period a year ago and deaths up by a small amoount, leading so a natural decline of 173,000 in the total population (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5BD72D293AA32 and gks.ru/free_doc/2018/demo/edn09-18.htm).
Most of the decline in the number of births reflects the fall in the number of women in prime child-bearing age cohort, but some is the product of individual decisions to put off having a family because of economic problems. The increase in the number of deaths is mostly the result of the aging of the population but some may reflect Putin’s health “optimization” program.
And third, just where Russia is economically or demographically is becoming ever more difficult to say, experts explain because of what they call the “unprecedented” even for Russia manipulation of official statistics to support whatever position those in power want to promote (nakanune.ru/articles/114510/).
That troubling trend, perhaps most clearly exemplified by Russian government claims that incomes are going up when Russians can see in their own cases and those of the people around them that that is not the case, the Nakanune press agency says. But it is unfortunately not limited to that measure but increasingly affects all others.
Not only does the corruption of the numbers undermine any remaining confidence among Russians that officials are telling them the truth, but it means that the government is often making decisions not on the basis of facts but rather on its own propaganda. Good information, of course, won’t guarantee good policy; but a lack of it makes good policy an accident.
Just how sloppy and dangerous the absence of good data can be is reflected in the current Putin practice of blaming the 1990s for demographic decline on some occasions and ignoring the impact of that decade when it suits him (echo.msk.ru/blog/nikolaev_i/2305641-echo/).