Averting a Demographic Nightmare in Russia and Eastern Europe
Over the past 20 years, newspaper readers across the world had grown accustomed to alarming headlines with some variant of “The Russians are Dying Out”. In the first ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a catastrophic fall in Russia’s birth rate was accompanied by a disturbingly low life expectancy. While Russia continues to experience the negative effects of its post-Soviet demographic slump, the situation is improving noticeably, and the whole post-Communist world should take note.
Total fertility rate
The total fertility rate (TFR) is a synthetic variable created by demographers which estimates the number of children the average woman in a society bears in her fertile years, between 15 and 49. In industrialised countries, the TFR must be 2.1 for the population to be stable in the long-term. The number is slightly higher than 2 because some children will not survive to be adults (naturally, the replacement-level TFR is higher in Third World countries, as fewer children live to see adulthood due to poverty and poor healthcare). The United Nations claims that if a country’s TFR is below 1.5, it is a profound social problem. A TFR below 1.3 is called “lowest low fertility”.
Under Communist rule, Russia’s TFR was always at replacement level or slightly below. During the 1990s, however, it collapsed dramatically, falling to 1.17 in 1999. In the late 1990s and 2000s the number of deaths exceeded the number of births in Russia by almost one million, and since the end of Communism Russia’s population has fallen from 148 to 143 million. Making matters worse is Russia’s high adult mortality. While some European and Asian countries such Italy and South Korea have low fertility rates, their high life expectancy prevents their populations from shrinking as rapidly as that of Russia.
In the past decade, however, Russia’s TFR has improved markedly, reaching 1.70 in 2012, the highest level since 1991. Last year, the number of deaths exceeded the number of births by only 2,500 in Russia, and male life expectancy has risen from a record-low of 58.6 years in 2003 to 64.3 last year.
There are two reasons why Russia’s demographic situation has improved so much. First, there is a strong correlation between the economy and the birthrate. High youth unemployment and weak economic prospects discourage people from settling down and starting families, while people are more likely to marry and have children during economically auspicious times.
This is why the Great Depression resulted in low birth rates in Europe and North America, while the economic prosperity of the first two decades after the Second World War contributed to a baby boom on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus, as living standards in Russia have improved since their catastrophic plunge following the collapse of Communism, more young Russians feel economically secure enough to start a family.
Additionally, Russia’s demographic situation has improved in recent years thanks to the generous pro-family policies of Vladimir Putin. Putin realises that his dreams of resurrecting Russia’s superpower status cannot be realised if the country is facing a pensions crisis and its demographic strength is declining. Russia has instituted a new social programme which pays 10,000 US dollars to families after the birth of a second child. Moscow has also increased spending on crèches and preschools.
Despite these positive changes, Russia’s population is destined to decline in the near future. Significantly fewer children were born in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s, and once people born in these years reach adulthood, their generation will be numerically smaller than that of their parents and grandparents. Thus, there will simply be fewer Russian parents to give birth in the future.
The number of children in Russia declined from 38 million in 1995 to 26.5 million in 2009. Eventually, these children will reach childbearing age, and unless Russia experiences fertility rates characteristic of sub-Saharan Africa (an unlikely prospect), its population will still decrease because of the decline in the number of women capable of having children.
However, even if it is impossible for Russia to completely prevent a decline in its population due to the birth dearth of the 1990s and 2000s, current trends will at least make the situation less dramatic.
The fact that Russia has increased its TFR should be evidence to other post-communist governments that their low birth rates are not inevitable. Under Communism, all countries in East Central Europe had TFRs around 2.1. Parental leave was lengthy, crèches were built at worksites, and policies were made to encourage mothers to return to work.
However, after the transition to a market economy many of these benefits were slashed. Coupled with growing unemployment, these changes discouraged parents from having children. Consequently, the TFR in Poland, for example, plummeted from 2.42 in 1980 to 1.23 in 2003, while in Hungary it declined from 2.3 in 1974 to 1.24 in 2011. Practically all post-Communist countries have experienced declining fertility.
This can at least partly be attributed to the fact that many prominent East Central European policymakers are skeptical that pro-family policies can make any difference. For instance, Leszek Balcerowicz – the author of Poland’s transition from socialism to a market economy, the former deputy prime minister of Poland, and a one-time head of Poland’s central bank – frequently criticises pro-family policies, claiming that they are an example of wasteful spending and do not bring real results. Many other prominent politicians in the former Eastern Bloc have arrived at similar conclusions.
Estonia takes action
However, in addition to Russia, some post-communist countries have made ambitious efforts at improving their demographic prospects. Frightened by UN predictions that its population would shrink by half by the middle of the 21st century, the government of Estonia decided to take action. It increased spending on crèches and introduced a generous parental leave policy in 2004, which allows women to go on parental leave and receive their whole monthly income for 15 months up to a limit of 1,560 dollars. Consequently, its TFR rose from 1.28 in 1998 to 1.66 in 2008. Now, the UN estimates that Estonia’s population will only have shrunk by 8.4 percent in 2050.
More recently, two Central European nations – Poland and Hungary – have seriously discussed generous pro-family policies, although it is too early to see the results. Since coming to power in 2010, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán introduced a comprehensive set of pro-family policies, including the subsidising of school meals for children from poor large families, tax breaks for companies that hire women who return to work after maternity leave, and tax exemptions for large families.
Meanwhile, in Poland, the government of Donald Tusk recently introduced a yearlong parental leave (up from six months) that can be divided among the two parents, who receive 80 percent of their salary. Poland’s President Bronisław Komorowski has recently discussed with all the parliamentary groupings – both from the coalition and opposition – a series of generous pro-family policies, including introducing nationwide discounts on public transportation for large families and allowing large, poor families to be exempted from paying taxes.
Thus, the Russian example – like the Estonian example, as well as perhaps in the future, the Polish and Hungarian examples – shows that Eastern and Central Europeans really do want to have children, and that negative demographic trends can at least be somewhat ameliorated with the right policies. However, will these policies bring long-term results? What kinds of policies can bring long-term stable demographic trends?
The French model
France is frequently regarded as a textbook example of successful pro-family policies. At a TFR of 2.03 in 2010, France’s TFR is the second highest in the European Union after that of Ireland. This is no new development, as France’s TFR has always been above the European average in the post-war era. Contrary to popular perception, France’s relatively high fertility does not result solely from Muslim immigration.
Muslim women make up less than 10 percent of all women of childbearing age in France, and thus their impact on the country’s TFR is marginal. Furthermore, as immigrants assimilate in France, their reproductive patterns increasingly resemble those of their indigenous French counterparts. Indeed, the TFR of Muslims has been declining in France for several decades.
What is the secret behind France’s success? Demographers note that France’s generous pro-family policies both help women with large families raise children at home and those with one to three children have families without having to leave the workplace. On the one hand, French women with larger families receive generous tax breaks (the more children a French family has, the less it pays in taxes), large subsidies from the government, and nationwide discounts on cultural and recreational activities and public transportation.
On the other hand, French women with smaller families do not have to give up their jobs, as crèches, preschools, and nannies are omnipresent, and the French state encourages long parental leaves. Thus, the key to the success of the French model is that it helps both large families afford more children and employed women to not have to leave their jobs to raise their children. This allows for great flexibility.
The Russian and Estonian reforms, as well as the reforms proposed by Bronisław Komorowski in Poland and recently enacted by Orbán in Hungary, are going in the right direction. Of these four countries, Russia has been the most successful at overturning its negative demographic trends.
Yet to maximise the effectiveness of these policies, these countries, and all others in Central and Eastern Europe, will have to promote greater flexibility and both ease the financial burdens of having a large family and allow women to both raise children and seek gainful employment.
Filip Mazurczak is a graduate student studying international relations and European studies at the George Washington University. His academic interests include Second World War history, Polish-Jewish relations, and Christianity in modern Europe.