LONDON — In his recent State of the Union speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the “most important [matter] for our country is the demographic problem.” He said Russia’s population is declining by 700,000 a year — this from a base of 143 million. Russian demographic experts suggest that the decline is actually now running at 900,000 a year and from a lower base, maybe lower than 140 million.

Putin said his government has recognized the problem for some years, but has “done very little to address it.” His May 10 speech did address it, with policy proposals to reduce the death rate and increase the birthrate. Of most interest, was his emphasis on the need for an effective migrant and immigration policy. Migration is a politically sensitive issue in Russia, one that Russia’s leaders believe should be played down ahead of next year’s presidential election. Street violence against ethnic minorities is on the rise.

Social, political and economic conditions in Russia today imply that policies to slow the male death rate are not likely to succeed; nor are they designed to improve the quality of life for those who do survive. Alcoholism and drug abuse, along with the attendant problems of malnutrition and HIV infection (more than 2 million men are now HIV positive), are getting worse despite Draconian attempts to deal with them.

Women show little sign of wanting more babies amid the cash incentives that Putin is proposing. The allowances are too small to have any impact on the quality of housing, education and health care. As a result, Russian women are emigrating in growing numbers.

Another aspect of the population problem is location. Anyone who can move is moving to Moscow and other cities in European Russia. They want to escape the harsh climate and poor living conditions of Siberia, the Far East and the Caucasus.

The move west — something like 20 to 25 percent of the population have moved out of Siberia and the Far East in the last 10 years (including around half a million Jews who migrated to Israel) — is a major problem for the development of Russia, as Putin has recognized. Development will increasingly depend on the Russian government’s ability to control and exploit raw materials in Siberia and the Far East — especially oil and gas, but also metal ores, timber and water.

Accepting the zero probability that the population will grow naturally as well as the continued outward migration of Russians, controlling and developing Siberia and the Far East will require the immigration of millions of people. At the time of Putin’s May 10 speech, the Kremlin’s point man on immigration, Deputy Chief of Staff Viktor Ivanov, talked as if Russia is ready to welcome 25 million ethnic Russians living in Russia’s former colonies, those that got away and became independent in the 1990s.

Yet, no way will 25 million immigrants, even ethnic Russians, be welcome in Russia by the people; nor will they likely be willing to move. Russian demographers estimate that no more than 4 million will respond to incentives to move in — citizenship and cash being on offer. And even 4 million is too many politically.

The presidential decree on immigration issued at the end of June included incentives structured to offer the most for people willing to settle the farthest away from Moscow — in Siberia and especially in the “border regions of strategic importance” with declining populations, such as along the Chinese border.

Kremlin officials said they hoped the incentives offered in the decree would attract 1 million Russian-speaking Slavonic immigrants over the next four years. Thus Russia’s population decline of almost a million a year is assumed.

However, even hopes for a million immigrants over four years will not be realized, as the provinces expected to take them do not want them. The province with the longest stretch of border with China, Khaborovsk, says it will only accept 750 a year for the next four years. Irkutsk was more generous, saying it will take 1,500 next year alone. Whatever the numbers, though, they simply do not add up: The three “strategic border” provinces have together offered to take only 40,000 migrants under this program over the next four years.

So the problem is not solved. One answer is to invite in Chinese migrants. Big business is already pressurizing the Kremlin to let Chinese workers help to develop oil and gas fields, the mines, the forests and agriculture. So far the Kremlin has made no response; to accept the necessary levels of Chinese migration would be political suicide.

The Kremlin needs to grasp this nettle and accept that the exploitation of Russia’s colonies in Siberia and the Far East is dependent on the acceptance of large numbers of migrants from China. Until it accepts this, the development of raw materials there — crucial for the future well-being of Russia — will be severely restricted: a very expensive way of feeding racial prejudice.

Of course, Chinese migration is taking place already, mainly illegally. Without these migrants, the building industry would collapse, factories would shut down, markets for consumer goods would close, marginal farms would return to forest, casinos would close, and life for the Russians (occupying territory that the Chinese believe was stolen from them in the 19th century) would be worse.

Against this background it is interesting, and maybe worrying, to note that the Kremlin has just imposed a cordon sanitaire along its southern borders with China and Kazakhstan. Along the Chinese border, only people — Russians as well as foreigners — with new visas can enter a 30-km strip; for the Kazakhstan border (across which many illegal Chinese migrants cross into Russia) the exclusion zone is only 5-km wide.

This Soviet-style control measure was introduced without explanation of why it was needed or an apology for the incredible inconvenience it will impose on those who must move within 30 km or 5 km of the border to work or play. It seems that Kremlin paranoia about Chinese “infiltration” has reached new levels.

For the time being, Russia finds itself as the only member of the Group of Eight leading countries that more people are trying to exit than enter. I wonder why?

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