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Russia's State Statistics Committee recently announced that last year the country's birthrate experienced its greatest increase since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Having plummeted from 13.4 births per 1,000 inhabitants in 1990 to 8.3 in 1999, the rate has risen steadily over the last three years and in 2002 rose to 9.8. However, this long-awaited upswing was offset by news that the death rate last year was higher than it has been since World War II. Overall, the population of the Russian Federation decreased by 856,700 in 2002. According to the State Statistics Committee, in the first half of 2003 Russia's population shrank by 454,200 people. The recent 2002 census reports the population of the Russian Federation at 145,537,000, down from nearly 150 million a decade ago. In short, the Russian demographic crisis has been and will continue to be one of most significant obstacles to sustained economic growth.

By the mid-1990s, the Russian demographic crisis had become a major public-policy concern. In his first state of the nation address in July 2000, President Vladimir Putin listed population decline at the top of a list of major problems facing Russia. In 2002, statisticians warned that the Russian population could fall to 78 million by 2050. Economists generally agree that an economy can only grow if there is a healthy workforce to sustain it.

The population decline is blamed principally on low life expectancy and a low birthrate. As a result of poor health standards, smoking, alcoholism, and increased stress, life expectancy in Russia is currently estimated at only 58.6 years for men and 72 years for women. In addition, the suicide rate has increased by 80 percent since the collapse of the USSR.

The very low birthrate is another key factor in Russia's declining population. Officials regularly cite the decline of the family as a cause of the decline in births. The share of births to unmarried mothers almost doubled between 1989 and 1997, from 13.5 percent to 25.3 percent. This leap has coincided with a drastic increase in the divorce rate, from 42.4 percent in 1990 to 64.9 percent in 1996. The Moscow Center for Gender Studies reports that one in five families with children under 18 years of age lives without a father. (It bears mentioning, however, that in a 2002 report, the U.S. Census Bureau similarly reported that only slightly less than one in five children live without a father.) Such statistics, combined with general uncertainty about economic stability, contribute to the general disinclination to have children.

The overall decline in living standards since the dissolution of the Soviet Union has contributed to falling birthrates. Economic conditions in Russia drastically worsened in the early 1990s and again in August 1998, when the ruble was devalued to approximately one-fourth its previous value. Although economic conditions are somewhat improved now, Dr. Marina Malysheva of the Moscow Center for Gender Studies recently found that one-fourth of women do not want to have children at all because they are not sure they can provide them with an acceptable standard of living.

One possible reason for this disinclination to reproduce is continued uncertainty about economic and political stability. The strain of political regime change combined with the shock of market reforms in the early 1990s led to a widespread feeling of instability. Several observers have noted that harsh economic conditions have disproportionately affected women. The Moscow Center for Gender Studies reports that women are the first to lose their jobs in a difficult market and often receive lower wages than men even when working in the same jobs. Because many children are reared in single-parent homes, such discrimination in the job sector may negatively affect the birthrate.

Women's health and fertility problems are also direct causes of the declining birthrate. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, births in Russia have fallen by 20 percent. In 1997, there were only 8.6 live births per 1,000 population, as compared with 13.4 in 1990. The total fertility rate (births per woman), as reported by the BBC News website, has decreased from 2.01 in 1989 to 1.17 births per woman in 1999. In 2002, the rate was 1.25, which is far below 2.5, the minimum rate for a population to replace itself. In addition, 75 percent of women experience serious medical problems during pregnancy, the same website reports.

The high rate of abortions is a principal reason for the high rate of infertility. A study in 1994 reported in "The Washington Post" that the average Russian woman has three abortions in her lifetime. About 13 percent of Russian married couples are infertile. The comparable figure in the United States is 7.1 percent, according to a 1995 report by the National Center for Health Statistics. A recent "The Washington Post" article quotes Russian Health Ministry doctors as saying diagnoses of infertility are on the rise. In the Soviet Union, abortion was the most common method of birth control. Sexual education in Russian schools today does not cover the basic methods of how best to avoid contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) through condom usage. In addition, the Russian Orthodox Church actively campaigns against the use of condoms. For reasons of education, affordability, and accessibility, condoms, IUDs or birth-control pills remain accessible to only a small percentage of Russian women.

Another reason for this sustained fertility crisis is the rapid spread of STDs, particularly HIV/AIDS. The growth of Russia's HIV/AIDS infection rate was recently reported by the World Bank to be second in the world only to Ukraine. The spread of this and other life- and fertility-threatening STDs is traceable in part to the low usage of condoms in the overall population and also to the frequency of prostitution. A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report estimates that roughly 15 percent of the 15,000 prostitutes in Moscow are HIV positive.

Demographers do not look optimistically on Russia's current demographic situation. As Mikhail Tulskii recently wrote in "Konservator," the "rising death rate is logical (with rising medical costs and other factors), but birthrate growth is unlikely to last." He further pointed out that for the first time in Russia's history, more than 80 divorces were recorded for every 100 marriages. In order to sustain its recent economic growth, the Russian Federation would do well to directly address these family and women's health issues that so strongly affect the population crisis.

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT WANTS UN TO COMMEMORATE 1932-33 FAMINE. President Leonid Kuchma addressed the 58th session of the UN General Assembly in New York on 24 September, urging the United Nations to pay tribute to victims of the man-made famine in Ukraine in 1932-33, which claimed up to 10 million lives, Interfax reported. "Seventy years ago, the totalitarian [Soviet] regime organized an artificial famine in Ukraine," Kuchma said. "Unfortunately, in 1933 the world did not react to our tragedy. The international community believed the cynical propaganda of the Soviet state, which was selling grain abroad at a time when 17 people were dying every minute in Ukraine." Kuchma said Ukraine is not seeking "to settle past scores," adding, "We only want to make known our tragedy to the largest possible number of people, so that this knowledge might help us avoid similar catastrophes in the future." In May, Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada approved a declaration designating the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine an "act of genocide" against the Ukrainian people. JM

UN ASKS KYIV TO CONSIDER PEACEKEEPERS FOR LIBERIA. UN Under Secretary-General and special representative for Liberia Jacques Paul Klein has asked President Kuchma to consider sending an infantry battalion and a helicopter squadron to Liberia for a peacekeeping mission under the auspices of the UN, Interfax reported on 25 September, quoting presidential spokeswoman Olena Hromnytska. Kuchma reportedly pledged to consider the request "in keeping with the legislation in force [and] with due regard for the proceedings required to adopt this decision." JM