Russia shrinks
Russians are dying younger each year, having fewer children and resisting immigration. The result is a population freefall and a risk of economic ruin.

GRAEME SMITH

From Saturday's Globe and Mail April 21, 2006

Muhyen, Russia — The town of Muhyen was once a jewel in Russia's remote wilderness. As the centre of the Soviet Union's biggest logging operation, this tiny outpost about 6,200 kilometres east of Moscow was blessed with famous mineral springs, well-stocked stores and even a gift shop.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s and the forestry business went bankrupt, residents abandoned the town in droves, part of a mass exodus out of Russia's eastern settlements after the lifeline of subsidies from Moscow was severed.

People who didn't escape Muhyen were left with little to do except drink and contemplate the town's bleak scenery of empty shops and quiet factories.

Where Russians saw only despair, the Chinese saw an opportunity. They injected millions into the bankrupt forestry company, cleared debts, rebuilt the town's roads and refurbished classrooms. These days, timber clatters and diesel engines rumble as the town comes back to life.

 

But the local residents aren't grateful — instead, some have reacted violently toward those responsible for Muhyen's revival. Troublemakers have started sabotaging company equipment: breaking windows, setting fires and stealing the sparkplugs from trucks.

Last summer, in an apparent prank aimed at the Chinese, somebody photocopied a handwritten advertisement in Russian and posted it on walls and doors. The sign said: "Chinese man will buy Russian dogs, cats and girls." A price was fixed for the animals, but the poster said the girls were "negotiable."

Why would the people of Muhyen try to drive away the foreigners who are saving the town from ruin? "I rack my brains about this every day," said Cai Guowei, deputy general director of OOO Muhyen Forest. "Why aren't they happy?"A great tide of Russians washed eastwards across the Asian continent over the past 1,000 years, from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, settling the world's largest country. Now that historic migration has reversed itself. The exodus from the snowy steppes of Siberia provides a troubling metaphor for a profound change that's taking place in Russia: It is literally shrinking.

Like the decaying town of Muhyen, the entire country is losing population. As with Muhyen, too, the fastest way to stop the decline would be to offer a warm welcome to foreigners. But the people of Russia, like residents of the town that lost everything except its pride, refuse to embrace this solution.

In a six-week trek across Russia, from Moscow to the far eastern reaches of the country, the fault lines caused by this demographic upheaval are clearly evident, revealing powerful undercurrents of xenophobia and racism, driven by anxieties over an uncertain future.

Russia needs immigration, it seems, but most Russians don't want it.

Consider this typical scene: A group of young professionals sitting around a dinner table in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. The hosts for the evening were Roman Zhabko, 34, a computer network administrator, and his wife, Olga Zhabko, 28, who manages a small business. Like the majority of Russians, they're loyal to President Vladimir Putin; a poster of Mr. Putin is the only decoration on their living room walls, besides the colourful drawings their toddler has scrawled on the wallpaper.

"Demographics is an acute problem in Russia, and it's discussed by everybody," Ms. Zhabko said as she put another dish of meats and cheeses on the table.

"More and more immigrants will come to Russia and they will bring their own culture," Ms. Zhabko continued. "Russian culture will disappear. This is the most horrible vision I can imagine. We are one of the ancient, rich cultures of the world, and we could just disappear."

At the moment, times are good. Russia's resource-blessed economy is booming, even if the wealth is shared by few. As a fitting symbol of its renaissance, Russia is chairing the meeting of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations — the exclusive club of wealthy countries — for the first time this year.

But the future looks far less certain: The country's population can't keep shrinking without provoking an economic disaster. Fewer people means stagnant growth and productivity, threatening to make Russia's already suspect status as a G8 member increasingly tenuous.

The threat to the vitality of the state and its global standing has not escaped the notice of Russia's increasingly autocratic masters.

The World Bank estimates that the number of Russians could decline from 143 million to 100 million within the next half-century, a trend line that if extended to its logical, if highly unlikely, end point, would see the Russians die out within five generations. The population has already dropped between 700,000 and 750,000 a year in the past decade, and the pace is accelerating with Russia's unique mix of low birth rates, plunging life expectancy and low immigration.

The demographic situation is especially acute in the Far Eastern region, where Muhyen is located. This is a territory more than two-thirds the size of Canada, with less than 5 per cent of Russia's population. It's depopulating quickly, having lost almost 18 per cent of its people between 1990 and 2004.

Towns that didn't disappear completely have ended up as quiet husks of their former selves, where the bustling street life has been replaced by scenes of broken windows, boarded doorways and midday drunks slipping off their chairs at the town's only café.

Many Western countries face a milder version of Russia's demographic problem, because most industrialized societies have low birth rates. But the number of people who die in Russia every year is roughly three times higher per capita than in other G8 countries, and unlike its counterparts, Russia isn't replacing its losses with any system of large-scale immigration.

Among these three problems — few births, many deaths and not enough legal immigrants — experts say the problem of migration is easiest to solve. Persuading families to have more children hasn't worked in any industrialized society with educated women. Reducing the burden of illness, alcohol, violence, suicide, traffic accidents and a host of other deadly problems in Russia would require an overhaul of the entire culture.

Mr. Putin called for such an overhaul in a speech last April, saying the government needs to tackle the alcoholism, ill-health and other factors that give Russian men a life expectancy of 58 years — 16 years less than men in Western Europe and well down from a modest peak of 65 in the 1960s.

"I am deeply convinced that the success of our policy in all spheres of life is closely linked to the solution of our most acute demographic problems," Mr. Putin said.

Russia is wealthy enough to improve its health system. Strong energy prices have fuelled a 65-per-cent increase in the country's GDP since 1999. But a huge portion of that money goes into the bank accounts of Russian billionaires, who doubled their net worth last year, while the health system remains miserably inadequate.

Many analysts are skeptical about whether the government will muster enough political will for a massive public-health campaign, and whether such an effort could reverse the population slump.

"We have to accept more immigrants," said Anatoly Vishnevsky, director of the Centre for Human Demography and Ecology at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Mr. Vishnevsky's forecasts suggest that Russia needs to attract roughly one million immigrants each year to maintain a stable work force.

"It's the only way to prevent a very serious problem," he said. After a pause, he added: "Of course, you understand, this being Russia, when you bring millions of immigrants into the country, you have some other problems."

That's a gentle understatement by the distinguished academic. The Russian government has already taken some cautious steps toward easing the rules on immigration, suggesting amnesty for some of the millions of Caucasian and Asian migrants already working illegally in the country. But polls show a majority of Russians strongly oppose such openness: The respected Levada Centre recently found that 59 per cent of respondents want the government to tighten migration rules, rather than ease them. That percentage has jumped from 45 per cent in 2002.

Immigration statistics are notoriously unreliable in Russia, but government figures show that net migration — the number of people arriving, minus the number leaving — isn't nearly enough to replace the demographic losses. Canada's net migration rate is 5.85 people per 1,000 every year, while Russia's amounts to only 1.03 per 1,000.

Even though Russia welcomes comparatively fewer immigrants, Russians are increasingly uncomfortable with the newcomers. In another poll last summer, 41 per cent of Russians said ethnic relations are growing more tense and less tolerant in the country, while 35 per cent didn't note any change and only 17 per cent said the situation has improved.

These tensions are fuelled by the fact that the demographic crisis has hit the so-called ethnic Russians the hardest. These Slavic people, who often have pale skin, blond hair and blue eyes, generally follow the Russian Orthodox faith and make up an estimated 80 per cent of the Russian population.

The ethnic Russians are watching their own people dying out, while all around them the Muslim minority is flourishing. Muslims often have larger families and healthier lifestyles than their ethnic Russian neighbours; one academic estimates that the number of Muslims has grown 40 or 50 per cent since 1989, and will surpass Russian Orthodoxy as the dominant majority within a generation.

One reaction to these shifts has been a rise in racist violence, as skinheads and other xenophobic groups conduct deadly attacks against visible minorities.

In the previous week alone, four Roma and a Vietnamese man have been killed, and several others injured, in violence blamed on skinheads. Earlier this month, a Senegalese man was shot dead in St. Petersburg with a shotgun decorated with a swastika.

A more subtle transformation has been the changing tone of Russia's politics. Indicators of the new mood are everywhere: Conversations with Russians in dozens of villages, towns and cities found remarkable unanimity. Nearly everybody is deeply worried about population decline, but not only because of the obvious economic threat; they are also concerned about being overrun by foreigners, outnumbered by people whom they believe can never really contribute to their idea of a "Russian" culture.

The whole idea of saving the country from disaster, for many Russians, involves preserving not only the economy but also protecting their language, culture and dominance as an ethnic group.

"We have to shut out the immigrants and increase our birth rate," said Ilshad Ibragimov, 23, a student wearing a New York Yankees pin on his winter tuque and fashionable narrow-toed shoes. On a cold day in Ufa, a university town near the Ural Mountains, Mr. Ibragimov shivered for 20 minutes on the street so he could explain why he so vehemently opposes immigration.

"These Tajiks, Uzbeks and the other migrants, they put pressure on us, they take our jobs," he said. "Russia is for Russians."

That phrase — Russia for Russians — is a political slogan with increasing power. About 3,000 ultra-nationalists from various political factions, some of them dressed like skinheads, marched through downtown Moscow in November shouting "Russia for Russians," making Nazi salutes, and carrying banners with anti-immigrant slogans such as "Moscow Against Occupiers."

Such xenophobic nationalism has recently spread into mainstream politics. The phrase "Russia for Russians" was fully or partially supported by 53 per cent of respondents in a recent Levada Centre poll. The Rodina party, whose name means Motherland, is the fastest-growing political force in Russia. It recently aired television ads showing dark-skinned men chewing watermelon and throwing the rinds on the street.

"Let's clean our city of trash," the advertisement said, with an implication that clearly wasn't related to discarded fruit.

The governing party, United Russia, presents itself as a somewhat more moderate voice, preferring nostalgic patriotism to hard-edged nationalism. Some analysts suggest that the Kremlin helped create Rodina so that the dominant party would seem like the mainstream choice in next year's parliamentary election and the presidential vote in 2008. Some say Rodina has surprised the Kremlin with its quickly growing popularity.Troubling as they are, these undercurrents in a shrinking Russia — the fear, the xenophobia, the nationalism — are only beginning to fully emerge in the daily life of Russians.

In the city of Khabarovsk, a cosmopolitan far eastern city on a riverbank overlooking the Chinese border, a survey found that about half of residents wished their city didn't have any Chinese migrants. Despite that, Chinese residents of the city say they have few complaints about how they're treated by their reluctant hosts.

"The Chinese thought the Russians were treating them well, because they didn't see any open aggression," said Elena Li, a demographer at the Economic Research Institute, a branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Khabarovsk. "They didn't see what was underneath. The Russians don't trust them at all. They're suspicious and afraid."

Part of the fear comes from the Russian news media, largely controlled by the state, which frequently reminds them that more than 120 million people live in the three northeastern provinces of China, just across the border from Russia's Far Eastern region, which has plenty of resources but a dwindling population of about seven million. A near-panic rippled through Khabarovsk recently, when people noticed that a Chinese-manufactured map on sale at a city market had given the eastern provinces of Russia a yellow colour — which the worried local residents interpreted to mean that China was finally laying claim to their territory.

(In an interview, the Chinese consul offered a patient smile and assurances that China has no plans to invade.)

Chinese who have lived in the city a long time say the situation remains peaceful, but they sense a worrying trend.

Lang Hi, 36, a native of northern China who works as an assistant manager at a restaurant in Khabarovsk, was taking a train into Russia recently when she noticed police officers pestering a Chinese man. The officers took $300 (U.S.) from him, claiming that they needed to seize the cash because it's illegal to bring foreign currency into the country. Ms. Lang, who speaks fluent Russian, argued with the officers that no such law exists. They partially relented, keeping only some of the money.

"Ten years ago, the Russians were kinder to us," Ms. Lang said. "Life has made them harder."

In most parts of the Russian Far East, the prospect of a Chinese invasion is purely theoretical. The number of legal Chinese migrants in the far eastern region has grown from 1,700 in 1989 to about 150,000 last year. Some estimates of illegal Chinese say the real number is 10 times higher, but on the streets of Khabarovsk a pedestrian is still unlikely to see many Asian faces.

The invasion has already started in the town of Muhyen, however. About 400 Chinese workers moved to the town of 5,000 people in the past two years, hired by the forestry operation's new owners in Hangzhou.

Their arrival has been hard for local residents to swallow. Muhyen once prided itself as a bastion of the Soviet empire, a place where sawmill workers and loggers enjoyed state-sponsored perks — new shoes, fashionable clothes — sometimes surpassing the luxuries of a major city such as Khabarovsk.

In those days, the forestry operation employed 3,500 Russians. Only 180 Russians have been hired back, although the town administration hopes more will return to work as lumber processing grows.

In the meantime, about 200 residents remain unemployed, and they complain bitterly about the Chinese importing labour and paying low wages. Rumours spread about how the Chinese are eating local dogs, paying children $2 to catch snakes for food, poaching rare species of deer and grabbing girls.

Company managers have tried everything to mollify the Russians. They house their Chinese staff in a dormitory in an industrial area to keep them away from trouble. The town's roads turned into muddy tracks during years of neglect, so the Chinese bought road-grading equipment and repaired them.

The company supplies local homes with free firewood, finances cultural events, sponsors sports teams and helped with a recent ceremony for war veterans.

Despite these efforts, complaints keep arriving at the town administration building, a wooden cottage with water dripping from the ceiling and a tattered Russian flag hanging outside.

"Some locals complain to me, asking me why are these Chinese walking our streets?" said Yevgeny Kartashov, the town administrator. He called his superiors to check and they confirmed his suspicion that walking down a street isn't illegal in Russia. "I say, 'Why can't they have a walk in the evening? We should allow them. We can't keep them penned up,'" he said.

Others aren't so liberal; some residents say they're concerned that the Chinese are starting to make themselves at home.

"They're bringing their wives from China, so they plan to stay a long time. They behave like they will become the native population here, and we will be the visitors," said Vera Soroka, 55, a retired inventory manager.

Police say they've noticed a surge in vandalism and petty theft targeting the Chinese. One of the company's tractors was stolen and has never been recovered.

Sergei Ignatiff, a police investigator, initially responded to questions about the crime wave by blaming the Chinese for failing to lock up their property securely. Then he made a small speech: "The locals want to show that the people who live here are the hosts, not the Chinese," he said. "They don't like them. We don't like the way they walk in crowds, we don't like how they buy boxes of beer and cigarettes for their whole community; we don't like how they spit."

Mr. Ignatiff stopped, seemingly aware that he'd slipped from saying "they" to "we." Then he shrugged.

"There's a clash of cultures."

Link: Saturday's Globe and Mail

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