On Monday, the Russian government’s official newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, published the preliminary results of a nationwide census carried out in October 2010. According to the Federal State Statistics Service, Russia’s population is now 142.9 million, what means that since 2002, when the census took into account 145.2 million people, the decline of the country’s population has amounted to 1.6 percent. The reduction of the number of residents was recorded in 63 out of 83 Russian regions, and a 2009 report done jointly by the United Nations and Moscow’s Higher School of Economics already predicted that Russia’s population would keep falling, reaching 116 million people by 2050.
Russia’s fertility rate has declined dramatically since the end of the Communist era and is now considerably below replacement level, compounded by a relatively high premature mortality rate. As a result, life expectancy at birth for an average Russian male is roughly 62 years, 72 for a female. Aside from the social aspects of the issue, the demographic decline of the Russian population will have an enormous impact on Moscow’s economic and strategic ambitions.
First of all, since both the population and labour force are declining, Russia will soon face a big shortage of skilled labour. According to some forecasts, in the next two decades the country will need 20 million immigrants to compensate for the labour shortage, and this explains why some have already suggested an official program of controlled immigration to encourage workers from other republics of the former Soviet Union to move to Russia. Nevertheless, this controversial suggestion, especially in a country where racism is rapidly increasing, appears to have been rejected at the very top.
The second major consequence of Russia’s demographic decline will be felt in the defense and security field, as the population reduction will lead to a serious shortage of army conscripts. The Russian Federation is a vast country with very long borders, and some of the border regions are already being depopulated, increasing the risk of both secession and a Chinese colonization of Siberia. Not surprisingly, the geopolitical consequences of Russia’s demographic trends may have been one of the reasons behind Moscow’s interest in launching the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
By creating an integrated economic space, the Kremlin may actually aim to build a new geopolitical subject with the same population density of the Russian Federation (8.4 people per square kilometre), but inhabited by 25 million people more. Furthermore, the population of Kazakhstan not only has a positive growth rate that could partially compensate the demographic decline of Russia and Belarus, but also shows a young age structure in comparison to the one of Astana’s two partners, which means that an increasing number of Kazakh conscripts may soon be charged with a greater responsibility in the defense of the Customs Union’s border with China, while Russia would be accountable for supplying armaments. Nevertheless, the country designed by the Kremlin to save Russia from the geopolitical consequences of its demographic decline is not Kazakhstan, but Ukraine.
Although the second most populated republic of the former Soviet Union actually faces a much more serious demographic crisis than Russia, its 45 million inhabitants may however turn the Customs Union into a common market of nearly 215 million consumers, with a powerful impact on the world economy. Furthermore, even if some forecasts assure that by 2050 Uzbekistan will have replaced Ukraine as the second most inhabited former Soviet republic, with a population of 48.5 million people against 38 million of Ukraine, in the short-term Kiev’s adhesion to the Customs Union would increase the latter’s population density to 10.4 people per square kilometre.
If we take into account that a successful implementation of cooperation within the Customs Union may bring more former Soviet republics into the free trade area, it becomes clear that Moscow still can play a primary role in the geopolitics of Eurasia, but under condition of managing the demographic decline of its majority Slavic orthodox population as an opportunity for establishing a more balanced relationship with the Muslim populations of the continent, rather than a cause for involving it in a clash of civilizations that has already been used as a means to destroy first the Soviet Union, and then, unsuccessfully, the Russian Federation.