Nicholas Eberstadt, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research, writing in the New York Times:
RUSSIA is a rising power today, and will be doing a lot more rising in the decades ahead. At least this is what we hear nowadays from pundits, Western intelligence services, presidential candidates and, of course, Russian officials themselves. The Kremlin’s own supreme confidence in this vision of the Russian future was captured nicely by its announcement last year that it expects to be the world’s fifth largest economy in 2020, along with China, India, Japan and the United States. Despite the current global economic crisis, Russian officials are still predicting continuing rapid growth for their nation; Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is even talking of a robust 5.5 percent growth rate for Russia for the coming year.
To international audiences transfixed by Moscow’s military swaggering in Georgia or dazzled by the newfound oil wealth of the Russian petro-state and its billionaires, this notion of an unstoppable Russian ascent may seem plausible, even compelling. To anyone who pays attention to population trends, however, it is absurd.
Russia is in the midst of a genuine demographic disaster from which its rulers have no obvious exit strategy. Although the Russia’s fortunes (and the Kremlin’s ambitions) have waxed on a decade of windfall profits from oil and gas, the human foundations of the Russian nation — the ultimate sources of the country’s wealth and power — are in increasingly parlous straits.
Despite net immigration since the end of Communism, the Russian Federation’s population is nearly seven million people smaller today than at the start of 1992. In the post-Soviet era, Russia has seen three deaths for every two births. Despite a “baby bonus” scheme unveiled by the Kremlin two years ago and a small rise in the birth rate, deaths outnumbered births in Russia by over 250,000 in the first half of 2008.
Russia’s health situation today is a disaster — substantially worse than during the Mikhail Gorbachev years or even the Leonid Brezhnev era. In 2006, overall life expectancy in Russia, at fewer than 67 years, was actually lower than it had been at the end of the 1950s, nearly half a century earlier. For a literate, urbanized society during peacetime, such a monumental public health failure is an extraordinary historical anomaly. Russian life expectancy nowadays is about the same as India’s, and life expectancy for Russian men, today barely over 60 years, is lower than for their counterparts in Pakistan.
Russia’s great leap backwards in health is most severe for the country’s working-age population. From 1965 to 2005, the death rate (that is, the number dying per 1,000 of population) for Russian men between the ages of 15 and 64 jumped by an average of more than 50 percent. Perhaps even more shocking, rates for working-age women in Russia rose by more than 30 percent during those same years.
Meanwhile, of course, workers in the rest of Europe (and for that matter in virtually all the rest of the modern world) were becoming progressively healthier and more robust. Nowadays, according to the independent Human Mortality Database, a man from the Netherlands does not face the same risk of death as a 30-year-old man in Russia until that Dutchman is almost 60.
In and of themselves, these crippling health trends augur ill for Russia’s productivity prospects or economic outlook: it is unrealistic to expect Irish standards of living or rates of economic growth from a population facing Indian mortality schedules. But the economic implications of these trends may be even worse than they appear at first glance. Under current patterns, a 20-year-old man in Russia today stands less than even odds of making it to a notional retirement at age 65. (By contrast, five out of six similar American men can expect to reach their 65th birthday, and the chances are even better in Japan and most of Western Europe.)
With such a brutally high burden of premature mortality and such a radical foreshortening of working life, the cost-benefit calculus for higher education or additional training tilts against investments in knowledge and skills for the work force. Yet in the modern world economy, investments in “human capital” are one of the main engines for stimulating sustained economic growth and eliciting the general spread of national prosperity.
Because Russia’s health crisis looks so utterly abnormal for an industrialized society, one might assume the problem could be quickly remedied through the usual methods: better living standards and more sensible medical policies from the Kremlin. But resolving the Russian health crisis will not be that easy. Russia’s per capita income level has already risen by about 80 percent over the past decade (thanks largely to the oil and gas boom), yet this has hardly budged high mortality rates. The trouble is that in the pathological tangle that frames health conditions in modern Russia, the abnormal has become the new norm.
Russia’s great killers today are not infectious diseases that might be cured with a pill or prevented through an injection. Instead, they are chronic and non-communicable afflictions. According to the World Health Organization, Russia’s death rates from cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart attacks and strokes) are roughly four times as high as in the European Union. Mortality from “external causes” (homicide, suicide, injury) is more than five times as high.
Even a highly effective medical policy cannot hope to control those sorts of epidemics swiftly. After all, heart disease reflects a lifetime’s accumulation of insults on the victim’s system. And those appalling human losses through injury stem from behavioral habits, including the country’s long and deadly romance with the vodka bottle.
Given the “negative momentum” in Russian health trends today, gains over the coming generation may be grudging at best. Simply re-attaining their parents’ survival prospects would count as a significant health advance for today’s middle-aged Russians. But if Russian men “succeeded” in that quest, their life expectancy would still be barely 62 years — lower than the current estimated level in impoverished Bangladesh.
If projections by the United Nations Population Division come to pass, Russia’s population will fall by 10 million more from now to 2020. Those same projections envision Russian life expectancy lagging ever further behind global averages by 2020 to 2025, in this view, overall life expectancy in Russia would actually be a year lower than average for the world’s less-developed countries — with the men’s expectancy nearly five years below the third world mean.
Demography may not be destiny, of course. But this is not a portrait of a successfully and rapidly developing economy — much less an emerging economic superpower.