The Russophobes Were Right… (About The Wrong Country)

After peaking in 2007 at the height of its oil boom, the Russian economy slid off the rails, with GDP collapsing by 25% from peak to trough. Attempts to stem the decline by arresting pessimistic economists failed. Its image as a tiger economy, heavily promoted by Kremlin ideologues, was revealed to be a sham. Though anemic, growth returned this year; but little of it trickles down to ordinary Russians. Unemployment is over 16%, birth rates have collapsed, and millions of citizens are voting with their feet and migrating to work as laborers in affluent Western Europe.

This demographic free fall threatens to dash any remaining hopes of Russia ever converging to European living standards. Birth rates have fallen by 25% since the post-Soviet era peak in 2008, and the total fertility rate – the average number of children a woman can be expected to have over her lifetime – is now one of the lowest in the world, surpassed only by a few small, rich Asian states like Taiwan and Singapore. And with young professionals rushing for the exits, this situation is unlikely to be reversed any time soon. Last year, half a million people out of Russia’s 143 million population left for greener pastures; this figure has already been exceeded in the first half of this year. Already falling at an alarming 840,000 in 2009, population decrease further rose to 1,220,000 in 2010 and on current trends will approach 2 million this year. This demographic death spiral is the epitome of Putinism’s failure. The Leon Arons and Nicholas Eberstadts of this world were correct all along. Having been a Russophile shill all these years, it is time for me, like Johann Hari, to admit to my failures, apologize to the readers I misled, and go back to journalism school.

Oh wait, I almost forgot. I was actually talking about Latvia.

That is, Latvia adjusted for Russia’s population, and replacing “oil” with “cheap European credit” and taking out the arrested economist story and a few other details. All figures are from the Latvian statistics agency.

Above is a graph of the number of births per month in Latvia; note the collapse in the past three years, which shows no signs of abating. Even at its peak in 2008, the Total Fertility Rate – the number of children a woman can be expected to have – was at 1.44, which is well below replacement level rates (but nothing out of the ordinary for East-Central Europe). It fell to 1.31 in 2009, and according to my rough calculations, to about 1.17 in 2010. If the further decline observed in the first seven months of this year continues, then Latvia’s TFR will approach 1.1 in 2011. That would return Latvia to its post-Soviet nadir reached in 1998-99, and if prolonged will put its chances of convergence to West European living standards under serious question. Especially since…

Many more Latvians are leaving the country! As shown above, net emigration is soaring – almost 2,000 are now leaving per month, which is not insignificant out of a total population of 2.2 million. Many of these migrants are young professionals, the people who would otherwise be at the head of modernizing Latvia’s economy. In the past three months, more Latvians have left than were even born!

The contrast with Russia, a frequent object of scorn and ridicule among the Western commentariat, is far-reaching. Russia’s population stabilized in 2009, and has remained flat since. In the first half of this year, it received an influx of 143,000 net immigrants (of whom 498 happen to be from Latvia, incidentally). The migration balance has turned positive even with some rich countries that traditionally took in many Russians, such as Germany and Israel. The only major countries to which Russia is still sending more people than taking in are the US, Canada, and Finland. Not that one would could glean any of this from reading the Western media’s awful Russia coverage.

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