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Russia’s Demographic Problems Larger And More Intractable than Putin Thinks – OpEd


Vladimir Putin’s directive to the Russian government to dramatically increase over the next six years both life expectancy and the number of births, neither of which is achievable without the kind of investment unlikely to be forthcoming, have had the effect of refocusing Russian public attention of the country’s demographic problems.

They are both numerous and large, with some well-known like the shifting ethnic balance and the decline in overall population figures but with many others less obvious but with potentially equally serious consequences. Despite this having been a holiday week, three of these received more attention that has typically been the case.

First, Putin’s call to cut the number of poor in Russian by 50 percent may be far harder than he thinks. According to a new study by scholars a the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service, the number of poor is almost twice the figure that Rosstat gives (

According to the state statistical agency, about 13 percent of Russians – some 20 million people – are poor; but according to the Russian Academy, the actual figures are 25 percent and 36 million, nearly twice as many. Consequently, if Putin’s goals were achieved, it would only mean that the real number of poor Russians would equal the number Moscow now gives out.

But these figures on poverty carry with them additional bad news as far as the country’s demographic future is concerned. They show that households with children are more likely to be poor than are those without and that the more children in the household, the greater its probability of being poor.

That means Putin faces a Hobson’s choice: if he pushes to eliminate poverty, he almost certainly will drive down the fertility rate of Russian women and hence the possibility of stabilizing the population; but if he decides to try to boost family size, given Russia’s current social support system, he will almost certainly increase the number of Russian poor.

Second, like other countries in the industrialized world, Russia faces a cadres crisis, somewhat later than those in Western Europe but somewhat sooner than those elsewhere. That is, Russia soon won’t have enough people to fill key jobs in health care, education, scholarship and so on (

By 2030, experts at the Korn Ferry Hay Group say, Russia will have a shortage of people ready to fill high-skill jobs equal to 2.8 million people, 7.4 percent of the total number of specialists. Their absence, the experts continue, “will cost the Russian economy 297.1 billion rubles (4.8 billion US dollars) annually.

The shortage of such people will make it harder to boost economic growth, promote larger family size by providing more social support, and reduce the chances that any of Putin’s “directives” to the government this time around will be achieved.

And third, Russia faces a large and growing brain drain, in which its most talented people choose to move abroad to live and work. There are more than 2.7 million people abroad who were born in Russia, slightly more than half of whom have retained their Russian passports (

Their absence too is a drag on the Russian economy, scholars say. In principle, some of them could be attracted back by higher wages or interesting career possibilities. But some will return, according to new research, only if the political system in Russia becomes more open and less repressive.

While moving in that direction would help Putin toward the achievement of his goals, it is probably the single direction one can say with near certainty that he is unlikely to choose to pursue.

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Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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