Monday, March 20, 2006

Belarus and Demography

by Edward Hugh



Belarus is of course in the news this weekend. It is mainly in the news for the fact that its leader - Alexander Lukashenko - is described by the United States as Europe’s last dictator, and for the fact that despite this (or perhaps because of it) he appears to have won around 90% of the vote in yesterday's elections, amid the cries of 'foul' from a significant and ever more vocal group of internal opponents.

What isn't perhaps so well known is the demographic backdrop to all of this. Belarus's current populatlion stands at around 9.75 million. Back in November 2005, the Belarus Ministry of Statistics and Analysis reported that in the first nine months of 2005 the population had declined by 38,600. In 2004 it declined by 49,000.

Belarus began its population decline in 1994 (the peak population was 10.24 million at the end of 1993). According to the most recent UN estimates, by the year 2050 there may be only 7 million people left in Belarus, and a large proportion of those will be in the older age groups, which will not be especially old since in Belarus (as in mother Russia herself) life expectancy for men has dropped markedly in recent years, to the current level of 62.8. This is more than 13 years lower than what males in countries like Germany or France may expect, and some eight years less than in Poland. Women on the other hand have a considerably better outlook with an expected lifespan of some 74.3 years.

In general the picture is not that disimmilar from what is to be found in Russia itself (with the significant difference that there doesn't seem to be much scope for inward migration). Big killers among men are things like cardiovascular disease and alocholism (according to the Ministry of Public Health Care, there are more than 253,000 alcoholics and drug addicts in Belarus today), and of course HIV/aids is also a problem. There are some Belarus-specific issues too, like the longer term impact of Chernobyl: of those from affected zones who check their health at the Belarusian Institute of Radiation Medicine, some 60-70% are found to register excess radioactivity.

So Belarus doesn't only have a democratic deficit, it also has a demographic one. In this particular context the question is raised as to what the connection between these two might be, and what real future awaits a country with the accumulated problem set which Belarus has?

More background to Belarus's demographic disaster can be found here, and here.

2 comments:

CV said...

"So Belarus doesn't only have a democratic deficit, it also has a demographic one. In this particular context the question is raised as to what the connection between these two might be, and what real future awaits a country with the accumulated problem set which Belarus has?"

Democratic deficit vis-a-vis demographic deficit? How would/could we argue these problems to be inter-related?

One point could be immigration vs. emmigration. Surely a country such as Belarus is more likely to experience emmigration than immigration and part of this is due the democratic deficit.

Edward said...

"How would/could we argue these problems to be inter-related?"

Well obviously in some ways they are. I have frequently argued that in those societies with very low median ages real democracy is virtually unthinkable since they are so unstable. In socities where there is a preponderance of young adults there is much more possibility of a more democratic system, but there is always the possibility of demographic pressures producing demands on the state which break banks and budgets (Argentina and Turkey in the 90s).

What is new, and I think this is really new, as in new and important, is the emergence of some low fertility societies where life expectancy is either falling or not increasing (Russia, Belarus, perhaps one or two more). This gives a very alarming demographic dynamic, and it is hard to see how such societies (apart from things like energy windfalls) cab break out of endemic poverty. In these circumstances it is hard to see how any government can have the negotiating margin with its population to actually be able to deliver on obligations, and since democracy to some extent needs this to work, it is hard to see how such societies can eveolve in a democratic direction, at least not without enormous assistance from, say, the EU it isn't.

Still, these thoughts of mine are not very clear and coherent yet as this is just a work in progress. I think all this really is new and unexpected.