Russia has problem

Wednesday, April 6, 2011
MOSCOW – Agence France-Presse

Russia’s latest census has revealed a bleak demographic trend of people fleeing ever shrinking towns and villages for urban centers, as the population continues to decline alarmingly, experts said.

The first results of Russia’s 2010 census have shown that the country’s population has shrunk by another 2.2 million people since 2002 and is now at 142.9 million. While experts called the results predictable, they also described the trend of systematic redistribution of people around the two largest cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg as very worrying.

“The number of villages with no population has grown” from 13,000 to 19,400 in the past eight years, said the head of Russia’s state statistics office Rosstat, Alexander Surinov. He said that 36,200 villages had a population of less than 10 people, a figure that has also grown since the last census. “This is not a very good trend” despite government pledges to develop rural villages, he said.

Not only villages but small and medium towns are a dying phenomenon according to the census, as people flee depressed single-industry towns where no alternative was created after local Soviet-era factories had to close down.

Monotowns, as the government has termed them, emerged as a problem especially during the latest economic crisis, when inefficient Soviet industries were unable to pay salaries and laid off workers.

Some of such towns, notably Pikalyovo in the northwestern Leningrad region, attracted national attention after their disgruntled populace blocked a major highway. “Solutions to problems of these single-industry towns have not been found,” said Sergei Zakharov, deputy director of the Institute of Demography at Moscow’s Higher School of Economy.

People will continue to leave even the mid-size towns of 100,000 to 200,000, since “they have nothing but problems and lack of even theoretical solutions”, he said. In the next 20 years, Russia will have to find a way to deal with immense Soviet infrastructure left in increasingly depopulated locales. “Both keeping it and removing it would require colossal expenditures,” Zakharov said.

The census is also indicating continued economic discrepancies between Moscow and the rest of the country, said Tatiana Maleva, head of the Independent Institute of Social Policy. Since 2002, Russia mostly was experiencing economic growth, which is “supposed to improve regional discrepancies, but we already see that this was not the case”, Maleva said.

From 2002 and 2010, Moscow had the highest population growth of 10.9 percent, according to census figures. Russia’s predominantly Muslim North Caucasus regions also registered an impressive average growth of 6.3 percent.

However the vast majority of the country saw the population decrease. The Far Eastern part of Russia decreased by six percent, with the harshest northern regions like Magadan shrinking by a record 14 percent.

About 3.6 million people were not covered by the census, of which a million refused to participate and the rest could not be located at their registered address, said Surinov. “There was a protest element to it,” said Maleva. “There is increased apathy in society as people unhappy with the current politics believed the census will not make any difference and refused to put in their effort.”

The Russian government has announced a plan to stabilize the population at 142-143 million by 2015 and increase it to 145 million by 2025. To reach that goal, Russian women need to have on average 2.14 children in 2025 because of the overall ageing population. In 2010 this figure was a mere 1.28, according to official statistics.

President Dmitry Medvedev has made demography one of the key concerns of his presidency, and called in his latest national address for more investment in children’s hospitals and supporting families with three or more children. Experts said it remains to be seen whether policies directed at stimulating birth rates have helped, since data on age and the number of households has not yet been analyzed. Migration and nationality data will also be released by the end of the year, said Surinov.

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