By Paul Goble
For most of the last three decades of the 20th century, the share of non-Russians in the population of most non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation increased because the non-Russians had significantly higher fertility rates than did the ethnic Russians living among them.
Now, fertility rates among most non-Russians have fallen in some cases approaching that of the ethnic Russians, a development some scholars in Moscow assumed would mean that the ethnic balance in these republics would stabilize rather than the share of non-Russians continuing to increase relative to the ethnic Russians there.
But that has not happened, for two reasons. On the one hand, the age structure of the population favors the non-Russians who have a greater share of their number in the prime child-bearing age groups than do the Russians and so give birth to more children even when their fertility rate is similar because the age structure of the ethnic Russians is tilted to older groups.
And on the other hand, ethnic Russians continue to leave these republics going to or in many cases back to predominantly Russian areas while members of the titular nationality return from other parts of the former Soviet Union, often in large but seldom much ballyhooed numbers.
Obviously, there are variations; but in an article today on the Kavkazr portal, Alan Gagloyev describes how “the number of the ethnic Russians in North Ossetia is contracting” because “Russians are leaving and dying” and the share of Ossetians is increasing because they’re coming back (kavkazr.com/a/russkie-uezzhayut-i-umirayut/29046543.html).
Between 1979 and 2010, the number of Russians in North Ossetia fell by 53,000, from 200,000 to 147,000 and in percentage terms from 34 percent to 21 percent; and experts say there is every reason to expect that to continue because an extraordinarily high percentage of those remaining – some 21 percent – are over the age of 60.
Younger ethnic Russians are trying to leave, specialists in North Ossetia say because unemployment is high, pay is low and also most positions are handed out on the basis of nepotism, something few Russians can take advantage of there. Young North Ossetians are leaving as well, some 47,000 in the last 12 years alone.
Meanwhile, however, the number and share of Ossetians in North Ossetia has continued to climb from 299,000 (50 percent of the population) in 1979 to 460,000 (65 percent of the population) in 2010, not so much because of more births but because of the return of large groups of Ossetians from abroad.
An estimate 86,000 have come from the Republic of Georgia. (There were 100,000 Ossetians in Georgia in 1989; now there are only 14,000.) Smaller numbers have returned from other parts of the North Caucasus as well as from further afield.
But these changes in the Ossetian population have not been driven by higher birthrates. Indeed, local demographers are concerned that the birthrate in the republic is too low. In 1926, Ossetia ranked second in the USSR in terms of the number of children in each family; today, local demographers say, it ranks 53rd on that measure.