Crisis bad news for Russia's shrinking population

25th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

State-sponsored posters call for Russians to do their duty and have big families.

Moscow -- In the face of financial trouble, it's a bad time for having babies. And babies are what Russia badly wants.

State-sponsored posters call for Russians to do their duty and have big families. One lining the Moscow metro shows a woman juggling three stout babies, another preaches "love for your nation, starts with the family."

Only in January, President Dmitry Medvedev touted the success of the government's drive to boost the population, saying births were up over eight percent in 2007 and six percent in 2008 -- the highest birth rates in 25 years.

But the demographic outlook is bleak. According to a recent UN report entitled "Russia Facing Demographic Challenges," the country's population has shrunk by 12 million people in the last 16 years.

And the population of the world's largest country could further dwindle from 142 million in 2008 to 116 million by 2050, the report predicted.

Now the financial crisis has added to Russia's pernicious mix of ill-health and low birth rates, heralding an early reversal of the cheerier birth rates of the last three years, statisticians and sociologists said.

Russia's state statistics agency Rosstat recorded 270,800 births in January and February, down by 3,700 from last year.

Rosstat head Vladimir Sokolin last month said the economically active population was shrinking by one million people per year and the country could face labour shortages as it emerges from the global financial crisis.

"At this rate, the crisis could reduce to nothing all the government's efforts of the last years to stimulate births," said Valentina Petrenko, the head of Russian upper house's committee for social policy and health.

"The risk of losing employment is in a big way linked to pregnancy and caring for young children. Expectant mothers and women, as a rule, are the first to be laid off," she said.

Experts say that in the face of financial uncertainty more women plan against pregnancy and are opting for abortions.

Only five percent of women surveyed by state pollster VtsIOM as the first economic stress was felt in November said they planned pregnancies in the next two years.

More abortions

Outside a city-run maternity hospital in northern Moscow, two women stood apart from the knots of chatty families waiting in the spring sun with flowers and bottles of sparkling wine to celebrate a new addition to the family.

The two sat heads together, smoking and looking almost under dressed in jeans and sneakers.

Irina, who preferred not to give her last name and nervously grasped her friend's hand, had come for the free abortion services offered at such clinics.

"I am still paying down my apartment each month, I can't imagine being without a job much less anything else right now," she confided, adding she was not living with her boyfriend.

"A friend of mine lost her job, but she said it would give her time to raise her child, but I don't know.... I think it's a bit crazy," she said.

Andrei Akopyan, the head doctor at one of the Moscow's reproduction and family planning clinics, predicted the number of abortions would increase by 10 to 12 percent due to the economic instability.

"It may be some families planned to have children, but they then found themselves forced to turn back on that decision," he said.

"There are, of course, already more women who want to have abortions," Khazem Alsoabi, a doctor at one private clinic, MedClinica, said. "The reasons I hear are financial, there's no question of that."

Searches for "abortion" on the Russian Internet portal Yandex have more than doubled since the onset of the financial crisis. The number of people who keyed in the search jumped from 94,526 in October to 151,471 in November.

According to the United Nations, Russia has the highest rate of abortions in the world, in a hold over from Soviet times when the operation replaced traditional forms of contraception.

Last year was the first since the fall of the Soviet Union when the number of births narrowly outstripped the number of abortions in the country.

"There is even a new social category of women who say they are having abortions because they can't pay back their loans," said Svetlana Rudneva, who heads the Family and Childhood fund, offering counselling for unplanned pregnancies.

She said the charity fund had seen a hike in calls to its crisis line and more inquiries from women seeking late-term abortions. The operation is legal up to the 12th week in Russia.

Women are increasingly citing economic insecurity as the reason why their families might pressure them to have an abortion, said Irina, a psychologist at another pregnancy hotline.

"It's one of many reasons cited to justify the abortion. But today, material difficulties is the main reason," she said.

Migration to Russia could help compensate for the country's drastic population decline, said Anatoly Vishnevsky, head of the Institute of Demography at the Higher School of Economics.

But, for want of work, migrant workers are leaving Russia in droves. The number of migrants in the country fell by 27 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to the federal migration service.

"The situation was bad already. We've always been seen as a country in a demographic crisis. The population is falling and will keep falling," Vishnevsky said.

"Of course, the current crisis will have an effect and that effect can't possibly be good."

But the real demographic crisis for Russia, he and other sociologists say, will hit in about two years.

The reproductive-age population then will consist of those born in the chaotic post-Soviet decade of the 1990s, when the number of births in the country fell by 25 percent.


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