Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Putin’s Aggression Cost Russia 180,000 New Births Last Year Alone, Illarionov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 21 -- A longstanding staple of Putin regime propaganda is that the capitalism of “the wild 1990s,” by driving down birthrates, led to a more dramatic decline in the population of the Russian Federation than did even the repressions of the Stalin period. Indeed, that has become an article of faith among many Putin supporters.

            But these same Russians are unlikely to be pleased by an analysis Russian economist Andrey Illarionov has carried out that shows Russia has had to pay “a demographic price” for Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Syria amounting to 180,000 children who would have been born save for Kremlin policies (

            According to Rosstat, Russian mothers gave birth to 203,000 babies fewer in 2017 than they had the year before, a decline of 10.7 percent, the economist says. This year, they are on pace to give birth to 360,000 fewer than in 2017, a decline that matches those in the first post-Soviet years.

            Given that marriages did not decline in number but in fact rose last year, Illarionov says, one has to ask: “What has happened with the birthrate? Why has such a sharp decline occurred?”

            Vladimir Putin has an answer: he says it is because of the demographic waves that Russia has had to live with since the massive losses in World War II.  But even official statistics “only partially confirms this hypothesis given that between 2016 and 2017 the number of women in prime child-bearing age groups fell by 0.9 percent but the number of newborns declined by 10.7.

            If Putin were right, then the birthrate should have fallen in the early 2000s when the number of women began to decline rather than in 2017 when that decline began to level off.  But in fact, in the earlier years, while the number of women of child-bearing age declined, the number of births increased because fertility went up.

            But in 2017, the fertility rate plunged by “a catastrophic 10 percent,” from 54.5 births per 1000 potential mothers to 49.1. This means that “less than 10 percent” of the decline in 2017 in new births is explained by the structural factor Putin uses to explain things and “more than 90 percent of the decline” reflects “a radical change in reproductive behavior of Russian women.”

            Why did the reproductive behavior of Russian women change so radically in 2017?  Some demographers suggest that it reflects in the first instance the end of government subsidies to stimulate the birthrate; others point to the impact of the deepening socio-economic crisis in which Russia finds itself.

            “Besides this,” Illarionov says, “the social catastrophe of 2014-2016 was probably deepened by the especially aggressive foreign policy of the Kremlin carried out since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and a war in the Ukrainian Donbass.”  Those things had an enormous impact on people’s expectations and therefore their propensity to have children.

            And that allows for the following devastating conclusion, the Russian economist says: It was “precisely the actions of the Russian authorities – the mistakes of the government in demographic policy, the depth of the social crisis … and the aggressive actions outside the country – that are the main reasons why Russian women beginning in 2015-2016 began to massively restrain from having children.”

            Russia is thus paying a price for demographic losses that can’t be blamed on World War II as Putin would like but on the Kremlin leader’s own policies.

Hunger Spreads in Turkmenistan

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 21 – Despite its enormous oil and natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan has run out of money for food and basic services, leading to shortages in basic commodities, long lines, anger and frustration, and efforts by the regime to hide the situation by broadcasting staged events showing a surfeit of food.

Over the last few weeks the situation has only deteriorated from what it was at the end of February – see – with ever higher prices not only for increasingly scare food but also for transportation and medical care (

Harvests across Central Asia were bad last year, but other countries in the region have covered their losses by purchases abroad either from state funds or by means of transfer payments by gastarbeiters working in Russia or elsewhere. So far, however, as Turkmenistan heads into spring, which is the worst time for food supplies in any country, the government has not acted.

And in contrast to the four other Central Asian states, Turkmenistan has few gastarbeiters abroad sending home money. Indeed, because of extremely high airfares and exist restrictions, Turkmens now cannot afford to go anywhere else. That was bad enough when the population was just poor.  Now, it is hungry. 

According to Regnum’s Irina Dzhorbenadze, the shortages of food and the inability of Turkmens to leave is creating a pressure cooker environment, one where unofficial estimates put real unemployment at 60 percent even as the government uses its media and diplomats to insist that “’there are no problems’” or only “’insignificant negative phenomena.’” 

Making such claims may satisfy outsiders who rarely devote much attention to the most closed country in the former Soviet space, but a people who are hungry and insulted by their own government at the same time are candidates for revolts, however repressive the Ashgabat regime may be.

At the very least, between now and the first harvest in mid-summer, Turkmenistan is likely to become increasingly unstable, a candidate either for regime change or a descent into the kind of chaos that the most radical elements are certain to try to exploit. 

West Must Learn to Live Alongside a Dangerously Ill Russia in Its Agony, Portnikov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 21 – The chief result of the so-called Russian presidential elections was “the final conservation of an archaic and reactionary regime, one like the Soviet Union it has become and, like that state, fated to suffer a death agony and collapse at some unknown future point, according to Vitaly Portnikov.

            But because no one can specify “when, how and under what circumstances with Putin or already after him” this end will come, Russia’s neighbors and the West “simply must learn to live alongside this dangerous sick man” of Eurasia (

            Putin “won” these elections because he promised to maintain the stability Russians crave given how much instability they have had in their lives and how shaky they really believe the situation in their country to be.  The question which must be asked, however, the Ukrainian commentator says, is “just what is this Russian stability?”

            The facts of the case are these: “In Russia, ‘stability’ – that is the unchanging nature of the regime – almost always exists with the exception of short periods of wars and crises,” but each new ruler declares the past to have been unstable in order to frighten Russians and justify their support of him, Portnikov says.

             Thus, he continues, “Brezhnev declared the Khrushchev era a time of instability even though he and other members of the Politburo who removed the unpredictable Nikita Sergeyevich were products of that era.  Under Putin, ‘the wild 1990s’ have been declared the era of instability, despite the fact that the new president and the rest of the leaders of Russia emerged from them.”

            It cannot be excluded, he suggests, that “some successor of Putin’s will declare the present-day historical period one of instability and turbulence. But until then, Russians are certain that this is stability because stability [in the Russian case] is not connected with the situation or their own situations or with the actions of the authorities but with Putin himself.”

            As long as the leader says there is stability, it exists.

            That is one of the reasons why “the agony of authoritarianism is a long, difficult and unpredictable process and we must simply learn to live alongside this dangerously sick man” of Eurasia.

            The readiness of Russians to support whatever their ruler decides on “at first glance would appear to create the conditions for the new old president to maneuver.” But what Putin will in fact do is something “no one knows today, including if you will Putin himself,” the Ukrainian commentator says.

            What would seem logical to others may not be logical to him.  While many would think he would benefit from compromising with the West, Putin may conclude that “an aggressive policy will help him avoid even the specter of competition and weakness domestically and convert Russia internationally into a kind of alterative to the West.”

            To the extent that is the case, Putin may decide to cross “ever more red lines everywhere” to make himself into what he aspires to be however much it harms his country and its future. That may keep him in power for a long time, but it means something else that both he and others must recognize.

            Putin isn’t going away on his own ever. He can be removed from power only if his system and the fake stability it is based on go through a period of genuine instability leading to regime change.  That happened to his beloved Soviet Union. With Putin, it can eventually happen to the Russian Federation as well.

                In the meantime, Ukrainians and others in the West must learn to deal with a dangerously ill and thus dangerously unpredictable Russian leader who has nuclear weapons which he clearly believes mean that he never has to admit he is wrong or say he is sorry.