Commentary: Bracing for Russia's Census

An ill-tempered argument among demographers has us musing about the ways leaders use rarefied statistical data to set policies for societies undergoing rapid change.

A small fuss broke out last year over an article in Britain’s leading medical journal, The Lancet, and its finding of a correlation between privatization and rising mortality rates in Central and Eastern Europe in the first years after the end of state socialism. Comments like these show that the article added fuel to the long-running debate over the merits of the “shock therapy” liberalization policies pushed at the time from outside by, notably, the economist Jeffrey Sachs and by liberals within the region.

But the authors of that study got it all wrong, according to a paper published this month by the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London. According to these researchers, the claim of a link between rapid privatization and worsening mortality figures in the post-communist states holds no water. A second article, out this month from an American employment research think tank, also lambastes the methodology presented in the original Lancet article.

We take no sides in this scholarly dispute (hell has no fury like a scientist scorned, and we prefer to be well out of the firing line). What we find fascinating is the use of data from all sorts of sources, whether compiled by state authorities or by outsiders relying on “soft” data – numbers of births and deaths, employment figures, measures of democratization and freedom. All this is then run through statistical analysis and the results are presented as verifiable information about the real world. Privatization, when applied too quickly to an inefficient and state-centered market, leads to more people dying from heart disease, cancer, alcoholism, and suicide. Or maybe not.

Not that anyone doubts the social cost of transition in the early 1990s. In a number of countries in the former Soviet Union steep rises in mortality rates, particularly among men, was a major cause in driving down the population to levels that are a persistent cause of worry for policy-makers. In Russia, officials are bracing for the results of the nationwide census to be held this year, the first since 2002. If the numbers turn out as many demographers predict, they may reinforce the belief that the country will have too few able-bodied workers for decades to come, and perhaps add to ethnic tensions.

Some demographers are worried the results will show little slowing in the negative trends seen in the country’s health and population surveys since the fall of communism. Some estimates put the population at under 140 million, rather than the official estimate of 142 million – compared with 147 million in 1989.

None of this is news to Russia’s leaders, of course, especially the contribution of hard drinking and poor diet to shortening the life span of men in particular. Sporadic efforts to wean Russians off vodka have been tried over the years, notably Mikhail Gorbachev’s partly successful program in the 1980s. Dmitry Medvedev has just raised the price of cheap vodka and spoken of the debilitating effects of alcoholism.

Back in 2006 Vladimir Putin launched programs to reverse the population decline through encouraging larger families, cutting the mortality rate, and a more effective migration policy.

The birth rate has in fact recovered in the past couple of years, and while state support to families may explain part of the rise, the long-term trend has many Russian demographers concerned. Many of today’s young mothers were born in the 1980s, when the birth rate was still high. But a consequence of the falling birth rates of the 1990s will be a smaller cohort of young women in coming years. Forecasts of the Russian population at mid-century are less dire than in the 1990s, but some pessimists still predict a fall to under 100 million.

Immigration, then, is likely to be a central plank in any Russian government’s demographic policy for decades to come. Until the economic crisis hit in 2008, several million mostly temporary labor migrants were working at any one time in Russian, the majority from Central Asia and other former Soviet republics. Many have returned home, but others, often working long hours in badly paid jobs, still manage to earn enough to support families at home, and their remittances make welcome injections to the economies of countries such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia.

But migration cannot be more than a small part of the solution to population loss, one demographer believes. Caucasians and Central Asians have trouble assimilating into Russian society because “everything is too foreign for them over here,” Sergei Ermakov of the Institute for Demography, Migration, and Regional Development was quoted as saying in a Russia Profile article in April. (That seems a rather odd view, seeing that economic migrants in many countries have always shown a pretty remarkable ability to adapt to foreign ways.)

So it’s perhaps not surprising that the Kremlin hesitated over taking a census this year. A few months ago officials were saying they would postpone it for two or three years, citing the high cost. Other factors than that were probably in their minds; there are concerns that the expected finding of continued high birth rates among Muslims will contribute to ethnic tensions. The census may also reveal steeper population declines than official estimates show in regions that have had more than their share of poverty (the far east) and conflict (Chechnya). The Putin-Medvedev administration may wish it had postponed the census after all.

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