Staunton, December 5 – In his message to the Federal Assembly yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin combined bombast, historical ignorance and dishonesty on a wide range of issues. But he did make a number of comments which point to possible shifts in Moscow’s policies in the future.
Perhaps none of these could prove as important as his shift in focus from increasing birthrates, his primary concern in the past, to cutting mortality rates, as a means of increasing life expectancies of Russians from what he said were now 71 years at birth for both genders to 74 in the future.
Both Russian and Western demographers have long noted that Russian birthrates are not too dissimilar from those in European countries, but they have said that death rates among adult Russians are vastly higher, comparable to those in many third world countries including some which are suffering from wars and other disasters.
The sources of those super-high mortality rates are to be found in alcoholism and alcohol-related illnesses, accidents in the home and at work, and violence. At present, nearly half of Russian men do not life to retirement age, and death rates among women of working age have been increasing as well.
The reason that Putin has focused on boosting birthrates through maternal capital programs and restrictions on access to abortion rather than on cutting mortality rates is because doing the former is both cheaper and easier than doing the latter, and consequently, Putin’s newly expressed confidence that he can make this shift is almost certainly misplaced.
As his government has demonstrated, it is possible to boost birthrates by providing maternal capital and restricting access to abortions, although some experts say that the former may change only the timing and not the number of births per woman and that the latter may lead to higher rates of mortality among women.
In his speech yesterday, Putin celebrated what he has achieved in this sector, pointedly noting that the United Nations in 2000 projected the Russian population would fall far more than it has. Indeed, fertility rates among Russians have increased, although some Russian demographers say they are likely to decline again if the economic situation deteriorates.
If Putin is serious about reducing mortality among Russian adults, however, he will have to find and spend more money on demographic programs than he has in the past, a step that will be difficult if not impossible given the stringencies the Russian budget now faces and the cutbacks in medical and social services he has already been forced to make.
And the Kremlin leader will have to take on certain long-established social patterns, including high alcohol consumption and a casual attitude toward safety. There are things that can be done in these areas, including boosting prices and restricting sales in the first case and improving government oversight in the latter.
But these are certain to be unpopular among the population and among Russian businessmen, and Putin is certainly aware that past efforts by Russian Imperial, Soviet, and Russian officials to address these things have sparked precisely the kind of anger and opposition that he has little interest in provoking.