Staunton, January 12 – Moscow is trumpeting as an indication of the success of its demographic policies that the population of the Russian Far East is still declining but at a rate “almost half” that of a year earlier, something officials at the economic development ministry say is “the best such trend for the last 25 years.”
But as Anastiya Bashkatova of “Nezavimaya gazeta” points out today, that region “nonetheless remains the territory with the lowest population density in the country” and one where the number of people is “not only far from its historical maximum but even from the modest level of several years ago” (ng.ru/economics/2017-01-12/1_6900_primorie.html).
Speaking to the Duma yesterday, Economics Development Minister Aleksandr Galushka was upbeat about the impact of the government’s offer of free land to Russians who move to the Far East, saying that 30,000 people had expressed interest and 3500 had filled out the necessary paperwork to get it. (Presumably the number who have arrived is smaller yet.)
And he suggested that both government and private investments are making the region a more attractive place for people to live and to move to because these investments coming in now are shifting the sectoral balance of the economy away from extractive industry alone to other branches with many new jobs.
According to the “Nezavisimaya gazeta” journalist, official statistics do suggest that “after several years of decline, the district really is showing not bad results, if one compares trends of its macro-economic indicators with all-Russian ones.” But these are not yet so strong as to improve the demographic situation there.
“The main goal of the measures the government has taken is the maintenance of the size of the population in the Far East.” But despite some progress this past year, there is as yet little basis for concluding that the region has turned the corner either in terms of attracting migrants or improving births over deaths locally, Bashkatova says.
Official statistics show that over the last few years, she says, 20,000 to 30,000 people leave the region, and until 2012, deaths exceeded births there. In 2015, the last year for which full statistics are available, “about 24,000” people left, far exceeding the 8,000 added by a greater number of births than deaths.
Galushka for his part said that the Russian government’s “strategic goal is to stabilize the size of the population at the level of “approximately 6.3 million by 2020” and lay the groundwork for its expansion to “8.5 million by 2030.” But the journalist suggests Moscow is a long way from achieving those goals.
“Despite individual successes, it is difficult to call the demographic situation in the Far East favorable,” she writes. Population density is the lowest in the country, and today there are “fewer than 6.2 million” people living in the Far Eastern Federal District. There were 6.3 million there six years ago, and slightly over eight million in 1991.
Between 1991 and 2010, the district lost “almost 1.8 million” people – “22 percent of its population. Excess deaths over births accounted for 225,000 of that decline while 1,550,000 reflected outmigration, according to Yekaterina Motrich, an economist at the Far Eastern Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
According to her, “the number of the population of the Far East Federal District is declining even today, albeit simply a little less” than it was.” And both she and other experts warn that investments today will not immediately affect that overall trend, as Moscow seems to think.
Moreover, Pavel Sigal, first vice president of the Pillars of Russia organization, says that officials are overstating how many investment projects have been started and the actual level of unemployment and have failed to plan development in such a way that investments will reinforce one another rather than have the opposite effect.
Aleksey Antonov, an analyst for the Alor Broker Company, agrees, declaring that until the region begins to “develop autonomously,” the demographic situation will not improve as a result of federal government-organized subsidies however large they may be.
And yesterday at the Duma after the minister’s statement, Yury Roslyak of the government’s Audit Chamber reinforced those views saying that Moscow’s claims about investments were at a minimum premature and more likely overstated. As a result, the economic growth they suggest will improve the demographic situation isn’t happening.