Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Syria, which tortures children, is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Uzbekistan, which has reportedly boiled prisoners alive, is a party to the Convention Against Torture. Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving, has signed on to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
These cases cast doubt on the effectiveness of these treaties. They also raise the question of why countries bother signing such deals at all. Why bother making international commitments you have no intention of meeting?
A recent paper by Richard Nielsen of MIT and Beth Simmons of Harvard and published in International Studies Quarterly takes a look at this question. According to the authors, the conventional wisdom has been “that governments ratify human rights agreements because they expect some kind of material rewards, whether official aid, liberalized trade, or private investment.” There may also be a less tangible desire to be a “member in good standing” in the international community of “modern” nations.
But it turns out to be very hard to demonstrate this empirically. Looking at signatories and non-signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the Convention Against Torture, the authors found “practically no support” for the notion that signing on carries material benefits for countries in the form of trade agreements, bilateral investment treaties, or increases in foreign aid.
For non-tangible benefits, the authors used statements by the EU, the U.S. government, and Amnesty International as a proxy for Western opinion. Aside from some perfunctory EU statements praising countries for acceding to treaties—the U.S. usually ignores these entirely—there was no measurable difference in the positive or negative tone of statements about these countries.
So why do they do it? It may have less to do with international validation than domestic politics. The authors say it’s possible “that governments sometimes see ratification as a small concession to their domestic political opponents” or, in a darker scenario, that “treaty ratification is a signal to domestic opponents that officials are willing to torture, despite such commitments.”
It also seems possible that even if the benefits are negligible, there’s little cost to countries for signing on. Why not take a public stand against torture if, in practice, doing so doesn’t preclude you from torturing?
After all, countries rarely try to withdraw from these agreements once they’ve signed, even if they’re subsequently in violation of them. One exception is North Korea, which tried to withdraw from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1997 but was denied permission by the U.N. secretary general because no mechanism for withdrawal existed.
The finding is also interesting when considering America’s attitude toward these treaties. If domestic considerations lead autocratic countries to sign on to treaties they have no intention of honoring, American domestic politics keep us from ratifying treaties we are functionally in compliance with. One big reason why the U.S. Congress hasn’t signed on to the rights of the child or disability treaties, for instance, is the vocal opposition of the U.S. homeschooling movement. For U.S. senators, the downside of offending this constituency outweighs whatever marginal benefits the country would receive for approving a treaty that guarantees conditions that largely already exist.
The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked.
The latest report from the U.S. government’s Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, gets right to the depressing point: “After a decade of reconstruction and over $7 billion in counternarcotics efforts, poppy cultivation levels are at an all-time high.” To get specific, that outlay is actually about $7.6 billion from a number of departments including State, Defense, the DEA, and USAID.
Ironically, the rise in poppy cultivation, and presumably opium production, is due in large part to some promising development trends. The report notes that “affordable deep-well technology” has turned about 200,000 hectares (almost 500,000 acres) of Afghan desert into arable farmland. With opium prices high and labor costs low, much of that land is now devoted to poppy farming.
According to SIGAR’s report, “The UNODC estimates that the value of the opium and its derivative products produced in Afghanistan was nearly $3 billion in 2013, up from $2 billion in 2012. This represents an increase of 50 percent in a single year.”
Poppy cultivation actually fell dramatically from 2007 to 2009, and has been climbing steadily ever since. Around 2009, the U.S. mostly abandoned its previous strategy of poppy eradication, which was felt to be turning farmers against the government, in favor of one that focuses on targeting the links between drug traffickers and the Taliban while giving farmers economic encouragement to grow other crops. That encouragement, evidently, hasn’t worked.
The drop in cultivation prior to 2009 probably had less to do with military efforts than with economic factors. Thanks to drought and a global spike in food prices during that period, the gross income ratio of poppies relative to wheat fell from 10-to-1 in 2007 to 3-to-1 in 2008. Since then, global wheat prices have eased—they’re pretty low at the moment—and the price of poppies has increased, and farmers have gone back to the harder stuff. Eastern Nangahar province, which was declared opium-free and touted as a counternarcotics success story in 2008, saw a fourfold increase in cultivation last year.
Farmers may also be hedging their bets in anticipation of the departure of NATO forces—the majority are pulling out at the end of this year, leaving behind a smaller contingent of U.S. troops to train Afghan security forces. The majority of Afghanistan’s poppies are still grown in the Taliban-dominated Kandahar and Helmand provinces, but cultivation has been increasing around government-controlled Kabul as well.
Why We Shouldn’t Be Too Sure About the Supposed Deal to Return the Abducted Nigerian Schoolgirls
Last Friday, there seemed to be cause for cautious optimism in reports that the Nigerian government was on the verge of a cease-fire with Boko Haram. That deal supposedly would have seen the release of the roughly 200 schoolgirls abducted from the town of Chibok in April, an act that provoked international outrage.
But things appear a bit more uncertain today. Suspected Boko Haram fighters carried out two attacks on villages in northern Nigeria over the weekend, killing several people.
The government says these may not have been actual Boko Haram attacks, just criminal groups exploiting the chaos. But this uncertainty points to one of the reasons for being cautious about news of a deal: It’s getting harder to figure out who, exactly, Boko Haram is.
As one government official involved in the negotiation puts it, “Boko Haram has grown into such an amorphous entity that any splinter group could come up disowning the deal. [But] we believe we are talking to the right people.”
One reason to be suspicious: The talks are being held with a previously unknown militant who describes himself as the group’s “secretary general.” Boko Haram’s known leader, Abubakar Shekau, has not yet commented. The Nigerian military recently claimed that it killed Shekau, or at least a man who was posing as Shekau in a series of videos. Shekau himself has been rumored to be dead a number of times, though earlier this month someone claiming to be the Boko Haram leader appeared on video saying, “Here I am, alive.” So, who knows—at this point, Shekau is essentially Schrödinger’s terrorist.
Given the criticism Goodluck Jonathan’s government has already faced over the abduction, it seems like it would be in Boko Haram’s interests to once again embarrass the government. This wouldn’t be the first time that a cease-fire had been declared only for Boko Haram to deny it later. After a deal was reached with the group’s “deputy leader” in July 2013, Shekau quickly released a video message saying, “Let me assure you that we will not enter into any truce with these infidels.”
We should probably know more by Tuesday, when Nigerian government sources say they aim to have the deal finalized. No matter the outcome, this weekend’s attacks are an indication that it probably won’t mean an end to northern Nigeria’s violence. For one thing, Boko Haram isn’t the only game in town. And there are bound to be questions about what exactly the government gave up to get the schoolgirls back. But at least there’s a little bit more hope that the ordeal for the girls of Chibok will soon be coming to an end.
Obama’s Post-Congressional Foreign Policy
An international deal with Iran over its nuclear program still doesn’t look like a slam dunk at this point. Nevertheless, in a New York Times article today, the Obama administration makes clear that if an agreement is eventually reached, they have no plans to involve Congress:
Even while negotiators argue over the number of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to spin and where inspectors could roam, the Iranians have signaled that they would accept, at least temporarily, a “suspension” of the stringent sanctions that have drastically cut their oil revenues and terminated their banking relationships with the West, according to American and Iranian officials. The Treasury Department, in a detailed study it declined to make public, has concluded Mr. Obama has the authority to suspend the vast majority of those sanctions without seeking a vote by Congress, officials say.
Only Congress can permanently lift the sanctions--which it’s unlikely to do even if Democrats hold on to the Senate—but the deal could be structured in such a way that this wouldn’t happen until Iran meets certain internationally verified benchmarks. In other words, it could be years.
It’s not unusual for presidents to look abroad in search of monsters to destroy late in their terms, as they have more authority to conduct foreign as opposed to domestic policy independently of Congress. But even by historical standards, the Obama administration seems to be particularly interested in freezing Congress out.
Given that it’s virtually impossible to get any multilateral treaty ratified by the Senate—some obscure fishing regulations are the exception that proves the rule—the administration’s plan for a long-awaited climate change deal will involve “politically binding” commitments rather than legally binding ones, which Congress would have to approve.
In the case of what’s been dubbed “Operation Inherent Resolve,” the campaign of airstrikes to counter ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the administration never sought congressional approval. The 60-day deadline, after which Congress must authorize military action under the War Powers Resolution, has long passed. (Obama did issue a letter to Congress in September informing them of the operation and noting, somewhat vaguely, “I appreciate the support of the Congress in this action.”)
Yale Law professor and constitutional scholar Bruce Ackerman has described the operation against ISIS as “a decisive break in the American constitutional tradition” that outdoes anything attempted by the Bush administration. But interestingly, congressional Republicans who normally jump on any chance to accuse the administration of imperial overreach, have been fairly blasé about these strikes. House Speaker John Boehner says that Congress should debate the use of military force against ISIS but only after the newly elected legislative body convenes in January—a lifetime in terms of a fast-moving military operation like this one.
There are several reasons for this trend toward post-Congressional foreign policy. One, obviously, is the dysfunction and gridlock in Congress, a situation that other governments are well aware of. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif has mused that Obama will have a “a harder job” negotiating with Congress than he will with Iran. Chinese officials love to point out that they’re being lectured on their emissions commitments by a country in which a large number of legislators don’t even believe climate change is occurring.
Given the herculean effort it evidently requires to get an ambassador to Palau confirmed in today’s Congress, it’s not a surprise that the administration is looking for workarounds on key issues like climate change, Iran’s nuclear program, and fighting ISIS.
In terms of war powers, President Obama has also gotten an ironic assist from his predecessor. As justification for the current operation, the administration is relying on the 13-year-old Authorization for the Use of Military Force against terrorism, which the president himself said ought to be reexamined and reined in by Congress in a speech last year. (The administration is also now reportedly considering whether to reaffirm the Bush administration’s reading of the U.N. Convention Against Torture.)
There are also larger global dynamics at work. Today’s American wars are typically open-ended campaigns against non-state actors, not fixed periods of combat between nations like those envisioned in the Constitution or the 1973 War Powers Act. Threats like climate change and nuclear proliferation also require swift global action of a kind that our current system seems ill-equipped to handle.
But that doesn’t mean the president should have unchecked powers to send troops into battle or commit the nation to major international agreements. For that to change, the White House will have to stop pushing to expand its power to act unilaterally at every opportunity, and Congress will have to start taking its oversight role seriously. At the moment, neither seems very likely.
America’s Fears of Immigration, Terrorism, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety
There’s been a persistent and mostly baseless claim in American politics over the last few years that Islamist terrorist have been actively attempting to enter the country through the U.S.-Mexico border. There’s also a long tradition of suggesting that immigrants crossing the border pose a serious public health risk. Ebola was roped into this months before anyone in the U.S. contracted the disease, but the fear mongering has ramped up dramatically more recently.
So, this being campaign season, it was only a matter of time before fears about immigrants, terrorism, and Ebola were combined into one rhetorical supercluster of anxiety.
When asked in a radio interview this week whether he favored travel restrictions on countries in West Africa, Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator now running for Senate in New Hampshire argued that we have a border that’s so porous that anyone can walk across it” and “it’s naive to think that people aren’t going to be walking through here who have those types of diseases and/or other types of intent, criminal or terrorist.”
To be fair, this is a little ambiguous as to whether the people with terrorist intent are the same ones who have the diseases. More explicit was Rep. Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania who suggested that U.S. citizens who travel abroad to join jihadist groups, could intentionally infect themselves with Ebola. “Think about the job they could do, the harm they could inflict on the American people by bring this deadly disease into our cities, into schools, into our towns, and into our homes,” he said.
But it took Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina to really bring things full circle by suggesting that closing the border to keep out Ebola-infected Hamas fighters: “Part of their creed would be to bring persons who have Ebola into our country. It would promote their creed. And all this could be avoided by sealing the border, thoroughly. C’mon, this is the 21st century.”
Ebola, first of all, is not a very potentially effective bioweapon. And even if willing recruits were somehow recruited into the Ebola jihad, there are probably easier ways for them to get into the country than by sneaking across the border.
Something also seems fundamentally absurd about a country where Ebola already is present walling itself off out of fear from a country where it isn’t. There haven’t yet been any confirmed Ebola cases in Mexico or anywhere in Latin America. Meanwhile, a Dallas healthcare worker being monitored for signs of the disease boarded a cruise and nearly disembarked in Mexico and Belize this week.
If Ebola does jump the U.S.-Mexico border at some point, I’m not sure why we’re assuming it’s going to be heading north.
Would the U.N. Ever Have Authorized Airstrikes Against ISIS?
Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Venezuela, and Spain, were elected as non-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council yesterday. Venezuela is likely to frequently join Russia and China—the so-called “sovereignty caucus” on the council—in opposing U.S. initiatives. The U.S. opposed Venezuela’s bid to join the council in 2006, but this time only registered its objections after the fact, with Amb. Samantha Power saying that the country’s “conduct at the UN has run counter to the spirit of the UN Charter.”
But the bigger story may be that Turkey, which had also put in a bid for membership, narrowly lost out on a spot to New Zealand and Spain in the “Western Europe and Others” group. This comes at a time when Turkey’s NATO allies are extremely frustrated with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government’s reluctance to participate more actively in the fight against ISIS militants across the border in Syria. (This week Turkish warplanes bombed camps of the Kurdish PKK movement in Turkey in the first major offensive since peace talks began two years ago. Given that Kurdish fighters have been on the frontlines against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, Turkey could be seen as actively hampering the coalition.)
Turkey’s foreign minister said after the vote that “there may be some countries disturbed by our principled stance” and that “we could not abandon our principles for the sake of getting more votes.”
The vote was also a reminder of just how irrelevant the Security Council—and international law, generally—has seemed during the latest military intervention in the Middle East. While chaired by Obama, the Council did pass an anti-ISIS resolution in late September, but it doesn’t seem like going to the U.N., as the U.S. did during the 2011 intervention in Libya, for authorization for the strikes within Syria was every seriously considered.
Rather, the administration is relying on the vague and controversial notion that the use of force is authorized when a local actor is “unwilling or unable” to contain a growing security threat. The lack of interest in the topic here is in stark contrast to Britain, where the opposition Labour party has balked at supporting airstrikes in Syria without a U.N. resolution. (They did support strikes in Iraq.)
The reason why going to the Security Council on Syria airstrikes was never seriously considered may seem obvious: Permanent member Russia would never support it. But as Jennifer Trahan notes, it’s not actually entirely out of the question that Moscow might have come around.
The Russian government, perhaps Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest international ally, has objected to the U.S. bombing Syrian territory without the Syrian government’s permission. But Syria’s foreign minister says his government is actually “OK” with the strikes “as long as they are aiming at ISIS locations.”
It’s possible to imagine a scenario under which the U.S. would promise to limit its airstrikes to ISIS, rather than Syrian government targets—as it is actually doing in practice—and get the Russian government’s buy-in. (China already seems quietly on board.)
However, this would involve admitting that the U.S. and Assad governments are increasingly becoming—if not allies—at least partners against a common enemy, something the administration maintains is not the case. It would also allow Russia to gloat that it knew all along that Assad wasn’t the real danger in the region.
Given that option, it’s not much surprise that Obama seems to be moving closer to his predecessor’s view on the necessity of working within the international system.
Does Arming Rebels Ever Work?
The New York Times reports today on a still-classified CIA report, commissioned by the Obama administration during the debate in 2012 and 2013 over whether to increase U.S. support for the anti-Assad rebels in Syria. Senior officials tell the Times that the report “concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.”
Obama referred to this report in an interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick last year, saying, “Very early in this process, I actually asked the CIA to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much.”
The best example they found was the support for the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which eventually forced a Soviet withdrawal from the country. But Afghanistan’s subsequent experience doesn’t exactly make that an encouraging case study.
The fact that the president and his advisers are talking about the unreleased document may be part of a plan to counter a line of criticism voiced by, among others, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. That criticism—that the situation in Syria wouldn’t have spiraled out of control if the U.S. had provided more aid to the “moderate” rebels sooner—is contradicted by the CIA’s report.
The CIA’s assessment jibes with the academic literature on the topic, as George Washington University political scientist Marc Lynch recently wrote on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog:
In general, external support for rebels almost always make wars longer, bloodier, and harder to resolve. … Worse, as the University of Maryland’s David Cunningham has shown, Syria had most of the characteristics of the type of civil war in which external support for rebels is least effective. The University of Colorado’s Aysegul Aydin and Binghamton University’s Patrick Regan have suggested that external support for a rebel group could help when all the external powers backing a rebel group are on the same page and effectively cooperate in directing resources to a common end. Unfortunately, Syria was never that type of civil war.
The U.S. occasionally aided anti-communist rebel groups throughout the Cold War—the Bay of Pigs invasion was a notable example—but it really ramped up its support with the “Reagan doctrine” of the 1980s, which involved countering Soviet support for leftist governments in the developing world by funding anti-Communist rebel groups. In addition to Afghanistan, the CIA funneled arms and money to anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua and Afghanistan.
In the context of the Cold War, there’s an argument to be made that this strategy worked—the Soviet Union collapsed, after all—but in the actual conflicts, the outcomes were ambiguous and the wars longer and bloodier than they might have been otherwise. (Angola’s civil war lasted 27 years.)
The study of history might have led to the White House’s reluctance to have the CIA provide direct aid to the rebels. The agency, though, was involved in facilitating aid from others, Arab governments and Turkey in particular, who may have been less discriminating about the recipients of that support than the U.S. might have been. When future historians ponder the lessons of this engagement, they may conclude that historical examples led the U.S. away from one set of mistakes and toward a whole different set of errors.
What Can We Learn From How Nigeria Contained Ebola? Not That Much.
Nigeria and Senegal could be declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization in a few days, after clearing the requisite 42-day period with no new cases. In all, 20 people were infected in Nigeria with eight fatalities. Only one person in Senegal became infected, but that victim has recovered.
The news is cause for a cautious sigh of relief, if not total celebration. Though the global outbreak is still far from contained, the prospect of it getting loose in Lagos—Africa’s largest city and a major international commercial center—was one of the more terrifying scenarios we’ve had to contemplate over the last few weeks.
The success these countries had in containing the outbreak is going to prompt some discussion of what lessons can be learned for other places fighting Ebola. The Financial Times attributes Nigeria’s achievement to a “rare national effort that saw the Lagos state government, federal institutions, the private sector, and global non-governmental organizations all pulling in the same direction to defeat the disease.” That national effort included a presidential decree that gave officials access to phone records and a strict system to monitor potential cases, one that involved tracking down more than 800 people who may have had contact with the infected.
But arguably, Nigeria didn’t actually do a very impressive job. A single Liberian man, who traveled to Nigeria in July, infected 11 hospital staff in the time between his admission to a hospital and when his test results were received. There might have been more infections if not for a doctors’ strike that reduced the number of people who came in contact with him. One doctor told the New York Times, “At the time, nobody was prepared for it.”
The advantage Nigeria had was that its outbreak began with this one man, who was immediately taken from the airport to a clinic, at a time when Ebola was already a crisis. By contrast, international agencies and authorities in the three countries at the epicenter of the outbreak—Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—didn’t wake up to the severity of the disease until dozens were already infected.
Rather than demonstrating the effectiveness of any particular method of Ebola control, the case of Nigeria, and the less severe case of Senegal, confirm what we’ve known about the disease from the beginning. Despite its high mortality rate, Ebola is relatively difficult to transmit from person to person, and under normal circumstances, it’s relatively easy to contain with common-sense public health measures: isolating those infected, limiting the exposure of health care workers, and tracking those who may have come in contact with them. For a variety of reasons, this was not done in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea until it was too late.
Despite early lapses, Nigeria—a country that’s not known for reliable public institutions or health care infrastructure—was able to get the outbreak under control. And despite the early lapses in Dallas, the U.S. should be able to do the same.
Of course, that's not much comfort if you live in one of the countries where it’s already out of control.
Vladimir Putin’s Tiger Is Lost in China
If you happen to be traipsing about China’s Heilongjiang province and come across a lost-looking Siberian tiger, the Kremlin would like it back.
Kuzya, a tiger that was personally released back into the wild by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has caused something of an international incident by wading across the Amur River that separates Russia from China.* Russian authorities, who have tracked Kuzya’s 300-mile wanderings by radio transmitter, are worried about his safety in China, where poached tiger carcasses can fetch up to $10,000 on the black market. There are also concerns that he won’t make it back into Russia before winter turns the river into impassable icy slush.
There are only about 400 to 500 Siberian tigers left in the wild, and their protection has been a passion project for Putin. (It’s a cause that dovetails nicely with the president’s penchant for manly outdoor photo ops.) Kuzya was part of a group of cubs that were rescued after their mother was killed by a poacher. Putin presided over their release into the wild at an event in May.
The Siberian tiger is particularly endangered in China, where there are thought to be only a few dozen left. At a time when the two countries are emphasizing close ties amid strained relations between Russia and the West, it would be extremely embarrassing for China if anything were to happen to “Putin’s tiger.” Chinese authorities have set up more than 60 cameras in hopes of spotting him, and may have gotten their first lead in the case on Saturday, when hair, feces, and tracks were spotted in far northeastern Heilongjiang. But there are now also worries that Kuzya’s sister, Ilona, may be headed for the border in an area more heavily inhabited by people.
Despite all the jokes about Kuzya defecting or attempting to annex northern China on Putin’s behalf, the tigers, of course, don’t realize what country they’re in. It’s not unusual for them to move back and forth across the river in search of food.
But, as I wrote for Foreign Policy back in 2010, animals are sometimes aware of international borders. The most famous case is probably that of the Ahornia deer, the last Europeans still living inside the Iron Curtain. The deer live in the forests along the German-Czech border, now a nature preserve. During the Cold War, though, an electrified fence demarcated the border between what was then West Germany and Czechoslovakia. The fence is long gone, but more than 20 years later, the deer still won’t cross where it once stood.
Animals can establish a kind of national identity as well. Researchers at the University of Haifa have observed that Israeli gerbils behave far more cautiously than their counterparts who live just a few miles away in Jordan. This is likely due to the more industrialized agriculture on the Israeli side of the border.
Hopefully Kuzya, then, can make it back to friendlier environs before experiencing too much in the way of physical danger or culture shock.
*Correction, Oct. 13, 2014: This post originally misspelled Amur River.
Did Russia Really Boost Its Birthrate by Promising New Mothers Prize Money and Refrigerators?
Russia is hardly the only country with worries about population decline—birthrates are falling below the replacement fertility rate in nearly every industrialized country in the world. Russia, though, has faced a significantly more dramatic demographic bust than most places. Thanks to a combination of low fertility, high mortality rates, and emigration, the Russian population declined by about 4 percent in the 20 years following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. And, this being Russia after all, discussions of the issue tend to take on a tone of bleak existential despair.
In 2006, Vladimir Putin described population decline as the country’s “most urgent problem.” In 2007, the government introduced a program to pay $11,000 to mothers who have more than one child. That same year, the AP reported on families being given days off from work (and potentially winning “money, cars, refrigerators, and other prizes”) in exchange for making babies. In 2011, Putin announced an additional $53 billion in government expenditures to boost the birthrate. And on a darker note, Putin has used the population crisis as a justification for the government’s hostility to homosexuality.
But here’s the thing: The Russian population isn’t shrinking anymore. In fact, in 2009 it started slowly growing, largely due to migration and decreasing mortality. In 2012, the number of births exceeded the number of deaths for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, causing Putin to smirk, “Our women know what to do, and when.” Though still low, Russia’s fertility rate of 1.7 children per women is higher than the EU average.
So does this mean, as Putin put it, that the “demographic programs enacted in the past decade are, thank God, working”?
I put that question to Sergei Zakharov, a demography specialist at the National Research University’s Higher School of Economics. In short, he’s not buying it.
First of all, the population gains are likely to be short-lived. “In the next 10-20 years we will have an enormous decrease in the number of potential mothers and fathers,” he says. “There’s a very small cohort approaching reproductive age.” Young women born in the immediate post-Communist period of the early 1990s are starting to have babies of their own, but there simply aren’t that many of them. He notes that “the low birthrates of the ’90s were also an echo of the previous wave initiated by the Second World War,” during which tens of millions of Russians, many of them young people, were killed.
Russia has also taken steps to improve its life expentancy, which for men is an alarming 60.1 years. (At least that’s up from 59 a few years ago.) Anecdotally, Moscow does feel like a healthier place than when I was here nine years ago. There are fewer people smoking, and less public drinking, thanks in part to some recently passed laws. Joggers used to be the object of mockery and derision. Now they’re a fairly common sight in parks.
But even if new policies can, as promised, boost life expectancy to 74, demographic reality is again not in Russia’s favor. “Those who were born in the 1950s and ’60s are approaching retirement age,” notes Zakharov. “We’ve actually been very successful at decreasing out mortality rates, but nevertheless, the number of deaths will decrease. We’ll have a bigger life expectancy but more people will die just because of numbers.” He adds: “Until the middle of this century, I think we have very little chance of maintaining the population.”
Zakharov says it’s “too early to say” whether the maternity payments, which some in the government are now pushing to cancel amid the country’s budget crisis, are actually having that much of an effect. Most of the big recent increases in fertility have been in rural areas where the birthrate was already relatively high. In the remote Central Asian region of Tuva, the birthrate is about five children per woman—comparable to that of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Zakharov notes—but most families in Russia’s large cities are still sticking with one or two kids. For one thing, $11,000 isn’t going to get you very far in cities as expensive as Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Zakharov notes that it’s common for nationalist governments like Russia’s to make population growth a major public priority. But, he adds, “It’s very well-known that there is not any instrument that can change the ideal family size. It’s very difficult to do.” Patriotic duty or no, people are going to have the number of kids they want to have.
If Russia wants its population to grow, then encouraging procreation will probably not be sufficient. But Putin’s government has other tools in its arsenal. Assuming the recent annexation of Crimea sticks, the country just acquired an additional 2.4 million Russians.
I recently traveled to Russia thanks to a grant from the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins.