Bear Trap – Russia In Decline

On a political scale communism is pretty much dead. Since the official fall of the iron curtain in 1991, Russia has had a wave of capitalism flooding into the country and the mid-to-late 90s saw a mad scramble to fill the economic void left by the fall of the hardline socialist industries.The vast majority of the new wealth got siphoned off by the very few. You’ll have heard of oligarchs. You could say that these people took the initiative at a time of unprecedented opportunity but the massive financial empires that have now been built have been thrown up at the cost of many, many not so lucky Russian citizens. The fact of the matter is that the pooling of the new wealth in the upper echelons of Russian society has had dramatic and potentially catastrophic side effects. These side effects are so acute that in complete contradiction to the prosperity the new wealth should be bringing to the country,  Russia has been in decline. In fact, Russia is dying.

Since 1991 the population of Russia has been steadily decreasing. Deaths have continuously outnumbered live births for the past 15 years and the country is suffering from a near apocalyptic HIV epidemic. HIV / AIDS is not something the Russian government likes to talk about. It seems that now Russia is being perceived as a country that has successfully risen from the ashes of hard-line national socialism the government feels like it needs to perpetuate this image on the global stage, and this includes side-stepping the realities of it’s HIV/AIDS epidemic at the cost of it’s own people. When people were starting to be diagnosed with the disease in the mid-90s the trickle soon became a flood. The biggest problem with the HIV/AIDS epidemic is that it predominantly effects males between the ages of 17 and 35. Russia’s core work force. If the trend continues on it’s current trajectory it is estimated that 15 million young Russians will have died by 2020. So what of Russia’s new found wealth? Surely a country with so much economic weight behind it could afford to implement health programmes and bolster the still largely state owned health system. Well, going by the stats, the government is doing surprisingly little. In 2006 Putin’s government spent five times more on fighting AIDS in Africa than in  their own country. In that year alone, Russia had 300,000 HIV positive citizens. The Russian government released enough money to treat just 500. Almost five years on the likely annual rate of HIV related deaths is around 250,000 people.

When the communist socio-economic structure began to disintegrate during 1991 huge areas of the Russian economic landscape failed. The socialist structure dictated that certain regions of the county produced specific products so when capitalism took hold it wasn’t viable to have these centres of industry. Mass unemployment ensued. The new economic landscape of Russia didn’t, and still largely doesn’t, have a welfare system. With no money available to prop up the newly unemployed, destitution drew deep cuts across the country. For thousands of the newly unemployed, depression set in and this led to a massive increase in alcohol and drug abuse. The reason this unemployment put pressure on the population crisis wasn’t that everyone who was out of work started mainlining heroin and started OD-ing in the streets. The fact was, people genuinely didn’t want to add to their economic woes by having a child. This saw rates of abortion rise and the damaged population fell even further. Are you ready for some more stats? According to the 2006 census, the average Russian woman had 1.4 children. The birth rate needed to sustain Russia was 2.1 children per woman. Russia was 0.7 of a child per-person under just breaking even. Even today the US Census Bureau estimates that the Russian population will fall by 32 million people by 2050. That’s a drop of more than 20 percent.

We all know that Russia has the biggest reserves of natural gas on the planet and the size of it’s oil reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia, but with a social infrastructure that is closer to a third world country and a population crisis to match, how can Russia capitalise on it’s natural wealth? Who’s going to mine the gas and pump the oil in 40 years time if the core work force has succumbed to the AIDS virus? A much larger and more worrying question for the Russian government right now is this: who is going to protect it?

The Russian army has shrunk in line with the decline in population as whole, so in an increasingly paranoid world suffering from dwindling energy supplies and aggressive foreign policy, is it only a matter of time before someone decides the time is right to take Russia for all it’s worth? I hope not. They’ve got nukes.

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