The American Enterprise Institute's Nicholas Eberstadt has become one of the leading proponents of the notion that Russia is in a terminal state of demographic decline
Last month Ross Douthat, a regular columnist for The Atlantic Monthly magazine now with The New York Times, commented on a new essay by Nicholas Eberstadt on the declining population of Russia. Dr. Eberstadt, a political economist, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington D.C. Eberstadt's most recent essay (with the perhaps insulting title), "Drunken Nation: Russia's Depopulation Bomb", which prompted Douthat's comments, is largely a rehash of his earlier report "Russia: The Sick Man of Europe" published in The Public Interest quarterly magazine back in the winter of 2004/2005.
Eberstadt's article provoked a larger discussion about global demographic trends between American "conservatives" like Douthat and "liberals" such as The American Prospect's authors Matthew Yglesias and Michelle Goldberg. However, these American pundits quickly changed their topic from Russian demographics to the reasons behind declining birth rates in Europe, Japan and other modern societies all over the world.
George F. Will's article published on April 19, 2009 called Russia a "Potemkin Country"
Eberstadt's essay was also cited this week in an article by the conservative columnist George F. Will, dismissing Russia as a "Potemkin Country" published in The Washington Post on Sunday, April 19, 2009. While The Post's editors probably meant no insult by publishing an article predicting the looming demographic death of Russia as we know it on the Orthodox Easter holiday, when millions of Russians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the timing is certainly ironic.
Russia watchers familiar with the debate over U.S.-Russia relations in Washington D.C. will recognize two familar questions in these discussions. Namely:
1. As we get further into the 21st century, is Russia going to become too depopulated and sick to matter in world affairs?
2. Is Russia unique in its projected population decline, or is it merely a few years ahead of Europe and Japan in its overall demographic profile?
Is There an Agenda Behind Claims that Russian Demographics are a Catastrophe?
The answers to these questions, of course, have huge political ramifications. The argument that Russia is going to become a society so sick and depopulated that Russian power cannot be sustained -- and presumably, by the end of the 21st century, parts of the Russian Federation will be annexed into Greater China or revert to their medieval status as Muslim Khanates -- has become common in Washington. It is similar to the argument advanced during the Clinton Administration, and even during the first term of President George W. Bush, that post-Soviet Russia was too weak to matter.
It followed from these premises that policies like expanding NATO into the Baltics, and building oil and gas pipelines from former Soviet Central Asia to bypass Russian territory, could be pursued without any consequences. While George F. Will, as a self-proclaimed conservative realist, has often criticized American nationbuilding in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has very seldom had much to say about about whether American foreign policy in the former Soviet Union has been subject to hubris.
Russian Demographics and the U.S.-Russia Propaganda War
The notion that Russia is going to implode, and perhaps the policies this idea has contributed to, have proven so annoying to Russian elites that they decided, in one of the greatest examples of tit for tat in the history of the post-Soviet propaganda war between Washington and Moscow, to throw this argument back at America. Professor Igor Panarin, an academic who teaches future Russian diplomats at Moscow's elite diplomatic academy, has become Russia's most famous spokesperson for the view that it is the U.S., and not Russia, which is headed for a Soviet-style collapse in the nearest future. Prof. Panarin presented his controversial ideas this week at World Russia Forum on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.
Panarin calls the new U.S. President Barack Obama "America's Gorbachev" (an analogy that a writer for the Associated Press also liked), suggesting that Obama is helpless to prevent a crackup of the American Union. Panarin claims that the decline in traditional morality in the U.S., federal overspending and excessive borrowing, long wars abroad, and other trends are pulling America apart.
A Hangover from the Cold War: Are There Still Any "Captive Nations" Today?
Rather than being original insights, most of Panarin's ideas are a hodge podge of notions first popularized by Professors Paul Kennedy and Samuel P. Huntington, in their books The Rise and Fall of Great Powers and Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity respectively. The mirror image of these ideas is the notion that the Russia itself (and not just the late Soviet Union) was a "prison house for the Captive Nations" all yearning to break free from Moscow's oppressive yoke. Indeed, there are a handful of "experts" on the former Soviet Union in Washington who still speak of the "Republic of Ickteria" as if Chechnya and Dagestan were (or ought to be) independent countries and were not a part of the Russian Federation.
The Line Between Reporting on Separatism in the U.S. and Russia and Publicizing It
The fact that during the late Cold War some of these particular think tanks also became homes for CIA recruited Soviet defectors excerbates Russian stereotypes that, twenty years after the official end of the Cold War, these institutions are still dedicated to anti-Moscow propaganda, rather than research. For Russian observers of this phenomenon, the line between ex-State Department and CIA observers like Paul Goble reporting on alleged ethnic separatism in Russia and actually publicizing the notion that certain territorites will soon secede from the Russian Federation is not so apparent. Even if one chalks these concerns up to centuries of Russian paranoia, it's easy to imagine the hackles among The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post editorial boards if a leading Russian expert were to regularly report on the fringe Republic of Texas or MECha movements and happen to have a silovik (Federal Security Service) background.
Oil and Gas Politics and the "The Grand Chessboard"
Certainly, if Russia were to eventually lose control over some of its territory because of demographic collapse, it would open the door to questions about how Russia's huge natural resources would continue to be developed and exported to the rest of the world. This is why many Kremlin-connected Russian elites believe that some in the West are actually rooting for Russia to weaken. They see Western complaints about alleged Russian backlsliding on human rights or allegations of Kremlin "energy imperialism" as sour grapes. Most of these claims they would argue, were popularized only after the oligarch Mikheil Khodorkovsky went to jail for trying to sell half of Russia's crude production capacity to major Western oil companies in 2003.
In other words, a great deal of the tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship, and the war of words and think tank reports that occasionally take a hard line on both sides, arise from Russian government resource nationalism and Western elites' resentment of the same. On the government-friendly Russia Today TV channel in Moscow, the Austin, Texas-based 9/11 denier and professional conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is regularly given a platform to air his views. Mr. Jones claims that former President Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and the billionaire financier George Soros are plotting to breakup the Russian Federation.
Is Russia Unique in Its Projected Population Decline?
Nicholas Eberstadt acknowledges in his report that Russia is hardly the only major country that is facing a huge projected population decline in the 21st century. Eberstadt argues, however, that far higher mortality and abortion rates in Russia set it apart from countries like Italy, Spain, and Japan that are also experiencing birth rates far below replacement levels and aging populations.
The problem for anyone trying to use the demographic decline of Russia to score political points against the present Russian government is that all of these trends began decades ago, in Soviet times. Russia's birth and health crisis has its roots in seventy years of Communist policies, including promoting abortion to women as an allegedly easy solution for unplanned pregnancies, and the perpetual shortage of affordable housing for young families which continues to this day.
Russia in the Context of a Larger Debate Over Global Demographics and Government
Arguments over global demographics, at least in the U.S., are part of a larger debate -- that Western European welfare states, with their high rates of income taxation, socialized medicine, and the like, are unsustainable. Sooner or later, goes this argument, there will be more retirees or welfare recipients than taxpayers able to work, and the whole system will collapse, first in Europe, and perhaps a few years later in the U.S. The global baby bust has become Western conservatives' rhetorical trump card in their debates with the Western Left, which generally believes that the Earth only has so much carrying capacity and it can only support so many human beings -- particularly when millions in the developing world still aspire to an American-level lifestyle complete with cars, high meat consumption, and rampant consumerism.
Many North American conservatives like the recently outed Asia Times columnist "Spengler" and the Canadian National Post columnist Mark Steyn enjoy shocking liberals in their audience by contending that the world (at least the rich nations of the world) will run out of people long before they run out of natural resources. Thirty years after Paul Ehlrich published his influential book The Population Bomb arguing that world was headed for mass starvation due to overpopulation, the notion that it is a birth dearth and graying population that we have to fear rather than too many mouths to feed remains counterintuitive for many.
Why the American Left and Right Both Dislike Russia
The problem with imposing all of these Western templates on Russian society is that they simply do not fit in Russia's social context. Medvedev and Putin's government is equally loathed by America's The Wall Street Journal (which leans to the Right) and The Washington Post (which represents the American center-left, along with the possibly bankrupt New York Times). The former see a incorrigibly authoritarian Russian State, arising like a phoenix from the ashes of the old Soviet security services, which is determined to avenge the collapse of the USSR or at least hellbent on making trouble for American interests and democracy promotion efforts across Eurasia. The latter group sees a country that still depends to a great extent on oil and gas, arms sales, and metals mining -- industries many American progressives regard as in their twilight at best and a collection of polluters, war profiteers and price manipulators at their worst.
Why Russia Doesn't Fit Into Western Right and Left Templates
Post-Soviet Russia has neither a generous Western European-style welfare state nor a Hong Kong-style laissez faire system, though it does have a low 13% flat tax on individual incomes. The fact that so many Russians already owned their apartments outright led to a boom in disposable incomes and consumerism in the past several years, as oil and gas revenues soared. Now the economic crisis has slowed growth in Russia. While Russian consumers are not maxed out in debt like too many of their American counterparts, Russia's largest corporations remain heavily dependent on borrowing from foreign banks, and those sources of financing have become scarce in the current crisis.
Generous labor laws in theory benefit Russian workers, but more often in practice benefit employers -- though many small businesses that sincerely want to navigate the maze of rules find the red tape burdensome. During the recent economic crisis, many Russians were told if they did not like getting paid late or having to take a pay cut, to take a hike. None of these problems, however, have become anywhere near as severe as they were during the Nineties, when payday often involved taking home envelopes stuffed with hundred dollar bills. All of these social problems following the collapse of the USSR -- combined with the ghosts of millions who didn't live to have families but perished during the Second World War -- have left a huge hole in Russia's population. But are these wounds from which Russia can never recover? The answer is, not likely. There are reasons for cautious optimism about Russia's population reaching a floor in the next two decades and starting a gradually upward renewal.
Conclusions: Reasons for Hope
At the end of the day, pundits and policy wonks can argue about all the reasons -- whether of affluence in Europe, or of poverty in the former Soviet Union -- women and men around the world choose to delay childbearing, to have fewer kids, or to not have children at all. But human beings, regardless of nationality, are never as predictable as actuarial or demographic projections would suggest. Throughout its more than a thousand year history, Russia has never been as strong or as weak as it has appeared to outsiders. For my money, anyone betting on Russia to become too sick and depopulated to matter in the 21st century is making a losing wager. Russia is too proud of a nation to go gently into the night.
For more on this very important topic, see the essay published by Anatoly Karlin below:
Charles Ganske is the co-founder of the Real Russia Project. The views expressed here are his own.