Since shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has been struggling with a major demographic crisis. High infant mortality, low childbirth rates, and fleeing emigres have seen the population shrinking by more than half a million citizens every year, at a time when most countries are growing. The shrinking population weakens the Russian economy and imperils the country's future. It's bad.
But could Russia's demographic crisis finally be nearing an end? Forbes' Russia-watcher Mark Adomanis digs into the latest official data and finds that Russia's natural population decline appears to have so far leveled off for 2012:
The blue line shows natural population change, which means births and deaths. Datapoints above zero represent years where population grew. Datapoints below zero represent years where it sank. Of course, this doesn't include immigration or emigration; people moving in or out of Russia. But, with lots of workers moving in from Central Asia, Russia receives more migrants than it sends out.
Still, it's worth taking this data with a big grain of salt. The CIA World Factbook estimates, based on U.S. census bureau projections, that Russian population growth will be a net loss of 0.48 percent in 2012, on par with some of the worst years of the crisis.
Why the dig difference? At a panel discussion held in Washington this summer by the Brookings Institution, a statistician named Svetlana Nikitina from the Russian census agency offered her explanation. First, she said that her agency simply has more accurate data, which is plausible but also a bit of a dodge. Second, she said that the number of net migration into Russia is 10 times higher than the U.S. believes -- almost half a million per year. A lot of this might be illegal immigration, which Russian officials could be better positioned to track. While an independent demographer at the panel agreed that immigration into Russia is rising, much of the migration comes from Central Asian countries with small populations. If hundreds of thousands fled into Russia every year, it wouldn't be long before Central Asia was empty. Illegal immigration from China and North Korea into Siberia might explain the number, but it would have to be very large-scale.
It's worth noting that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a big push to increase childbirth by offering increased social services to mothers. But those services still seem to be plagued by bureaucracy, and more efficient programs in countries such as Germany haven't shown this sort of success. I certainly can't vouch for Russia's official statistics, but if they're true it would be great news for a country that could use it.
Update: A reader points out that, although most Central Asian and Caucuses nations feeding migrants into Russia have quite small populations, Uzbekistan's is a bit larger at 30 million. Sending 400,000 emigres into Russia every year would still be an awful lot, but it is worth noting the country's size.