Russia and Georgia: The untold story

Ben Nelms's picture

Russia. Georgia. A lot has been made on both sides about the reasons why Russia made its move past the South Ossetia breakaway region and continued its march to Gori in the central part of the country and to Poti on the Black Sea coast. The reasons appear to be several, though at least one of those has received virtually no media coverage.

Some say Russia wants to recapture territory lost after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. Or perhaps it’s an attempted return to Russia’s czarist rule that lasted 1,000 years.

Lest we forget, Russia had imperial inclinations from the beginning. The word “czar” was taken from the Roman word “Caesar.”

But whether as Soviet or czarist, Russia is certainly making an example of those rebellious Georgians who finally emerged as a post-Soviet free-market democracy. And like Ukraine, Georgia wants to be a member of NATO.

Or is Russia attempting to get its hands on another pipeline that just happens to run the east-west route from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea? The European Union-owned Nabucco natural gas pipeline that bypasses Russia altogether doesn’t begin construction until next year with completion expected in 2013.

All the above makes sense. Russian territoriality and its penchant for dominance would make it prone to squelch free markets and democracies in its back yard and circumvent the desires of any of its neighbors to align with more open societies.

The numerous Eastern European nations and those in the Commonwealth of Independent States, such as Georgia, that used to be Soviet satellites, appear to have no intention of going down the Soviet path again.

But there is another reason that Russia is pressing Georgia and will likely extend that pressure to any or all of its “Near Abroad” neighbors. It’s Russia’s population problem.

By all accounts, Russia has been holding steady or losing population since the early 1990s. Vladimir Putin in his 2000 state of the union address and again in 2006 said population decline was the country’s most urgent problem.

Russia had a population of 148 million in the early 1990s. It sat at 142 million in 2007 (U.S. Census Bureau) and is expected to drop to 110 million to 130 million by 2050, depending on which estimate you use. Other estimates put the number at under 100 million.

The problem? It’s a combination of things like high death rates (lousy healthcare, infectious diseases, etc.), very low birth rates and extremely high abortion rates (13 abortions for every 10 live births in recent years).

Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars (WWCIS) noted in 2004 that only one-third of Russian babies were born healthy and, according to Russian census figures, 50 to 60 percent of Russian children suffer from a chronic illness.

Still other population-impacting factors include heavy alcoholism (that contributes to the world’s highest accidental death rate), long-term environmental devastation that makes the U.S. look like we just dropped out of Heaven, dramatic increases in AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, significant prostitution and drug use and out-migration to former Soviet states, western Europe and other countries.

One of the numerous reports on the future state of Russia relating to its population decline illustrates Putin’s comments. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ eye-opening 2008 report entitled “The Graying of the Great Powers,” Russia must cope with a rate of population decline that has no historical precedent in the absence of a pandemic and could, at some point, suffer upheaval and collapse, with serious regional and perhaps global repercussions.

Think for a minute what all this means if the de-population trend continues. Desperate people do desperate things. Nations are no different. What size workforce does it take to emerge again as a regional or global superpower?

If the reincarnated KGB cannot manage to have its people procreate in sufficient numbers, the next best thing (perhaps in their mind) would be to do as the Soviets did from 1917-1991: take over other countries, force their people into servitude, control their economies and their lives, create your very own workforce from scratch, assign them to jobs you wish them to have and dare the rest of the world to stop you.

Don’t be surprised if history is about to repeat itself.

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