Thursday, October 16, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Three Demographic Developments in Russia with Serious Political Consequences

Paul Goble


            Staunton, October 16 – Three demographic developments in the Russian Federation reported by media outlets there -- the dying out of predominantly Russian areas, gastarbeiters coming out of the closet in Moscow, and the possibility that a Ukrainian region will re-emerge inside Russia in the Far East -- have obvious and potentially destabilizing consequences.


            ‘The Center of Russia is Dying.” That the predominantly ethnic Russian regions of the Russian Federation are losing population is something that analysts and politicians have been focusing on for at least two generations, but all too often, the issue is discussed only in global terms and not relative to a specific place.


            A rayon newspaper in Tver, however, has published data comparing births, deaths, marriages and divorces for the first nine months of each of the last three years, figures that underline just how serious the demographic situation is becoming ( and


            Government figures for the Udomel District show that the number of people born there has fallen from 347 to 325 to 326 over the period, the number of those who have died has risen from 404 to 452 to 425, the number of marriages has fallen from 271 to 241 to 198, and the number of divorces increased from 152 to 150 to 159.


            For the first nine months of 2014, the population thus declined by 99 people, but that is not the most serious development: The decline in the number of marriages and the fact that 80 percent of them now end in divorce means that the birth rate almost certainly will continue to fall.


            Moreover, these statistics show, the paper said that as of last month, life expectancy for men has fallen to 58 years, which means that the average male in that district “will not live to retirement age.” For women, the figure is a little better – 66 years – but this measure of social well-being is also falling, the paper said.


            There was one potentially bright spot in this otherwise dark picture, the district paper said. Approximately 150 refugees had recently arrived from Ukraine, but instead of viewing this as an opportunity, “the government as before is conducting itself to them in an extremely inattentive way.”  If things are to be turned around, the people will have to do it themselves.


                Gastarbeiters in Moscow Increasingly “Coming Out of the Shadows.” The number of legal migrants in the Russian capital now exceeds two million people, a 50 percent increase in the official figure from a year ago and one that reflects less a recent increase in their numbers, officials say, than in their willingness to register with the authorities (  


            Aleksey Mayorov, head of the Moscow city department for regional security and fighting corruption, said this week that “we do not have more migrants; instead, we have more people who are legalizing their status in the city.”  He said that the number doing so had increased by 49.9 percent over the past year to 2.1 million people – an increase of almost one million.


            Of the total, he said, approximately half consist of citizens of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Ukraine.


          This official acknowledgement that gastarbeiters now form one-sixth of the population of the Russian capital is going to disturb many Russian residents, not only because this figure does not capture all of the foreign workers there but also because it does not include the numerous gastarbeiter communities in the surrounding Moscow oblast.


                But the official registration of these people has another consequence that may be even more serious: Russian businesses have routinely exploited gastarbeiters because of their working assumption that the latter had nowhere to turn for their defense. Now that has changed, something that will likely spark new tensions between businesses and the government.


            A Zelenyi Klin Restored with or without Moscow’s Help?


            Moscow and ordinary Russians have long been worried about the depopulation of the Russian Far East and the possibility that that demographic change will open the way to an expansion of Chinese influence and even control. But in the absence of the carrots and sticks that Moscow used in the past to shift people there, no progress has been made in that regard.


            Now, Yury Avdeyev, director of the Asian-Pacific Institute for Migration Processes, says that the arrival of refugees from Ukraine has given the Russian Far East “a unique chance to correct the difficult demographic situation” that region faces (


            Those who have come, he says, are “people who speak the same language we do, think as we do and look the same way. Most have higher educations and have a desire to work.”  If the Russian Far East does not make use of this opportunity, he continues, “we can forget about any further development of this territory.”


            The key challenge, Avdeyev says, is to create conditions so the refugees will want to stay. (PrimeMedia promises to publish a complete text of his ideas on October 20.)  But that won’t be easy: many of the refugees in Russia are unhappy with their situations and are trying to return home (


            But there is a bigger problem looming behind Avdeyev’s proposals, one that will certainly be on minds of some in Moscow.  At the end of the tsarist period, so many ethnic Ukrainians were sent to the Russian Far East that the region became a center of Ukrainian life and was known as “Zelenyi Klin,” the “green wedge” or “green triangle.”


            While the refugees coming from Ukraine now are in most cases ethnic Russians, they are ethnic Russians who have been profoundly influenced by their life in Ukraine and among Ukrainians, and if they became the nucleus of a new population center in the Far East, they would form a new Zelenyi klin of a kind Moscow would view as a threat.


            For background, see “‘Zelenyi Klin isn’t Only Ukrainian ‘Wedge’ in Russia, and Some in Moscow are Nervous,” June 12, 2014, at and Moscow Now has a Ukrainian Problem in the Russian Far East, Former Japanese Defense Minister Says,” April 2, 2014 at



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