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TUG-OF-POPULACE

Feb 22, 2006

The demographic race is on. Russia's Vladimir Putin signed a decree at the beginning of the month establishing a commission that will help facilitate "the voluntary resettlement of our compatriots residing abroad to Russia." The world's largest country is suffering a catastrophic drop in the number of people, as both birth rates and male life expectancy have fallen sharply since the demise of the Soviet Union.

By some estimates, Russia will have a population of 110 million by 2050, yet the sheer vastness of Russian territory and resources require an enormous workforce. Unless the trend is reversed, the country will simply not have enough working hands to keep up maintenance, let alone spur development.

For years, Russian economists have suggested inviting ethnic Russians in the "near abroad" 's i.e., the former Soviet republics 's to pack up and move to Russia. Now the idea has been confirmed as strategy, and a plan will soon be put into action. Given Moscow's astronomical cash reserves, there is reason to believe many Russians residing in Kazakhstan, Georgia and Moldova could be easily convinced to immigrate.

Baltic Russians are a special case. In Estonia and Latvia together, there are approximately 1.2 million ethnic Russians. Many have citizenship, and indeed the number of noncitizens is decreasingly rapidly, to the point that an Estonian official recently claimed that by 2015 the noncitizens issue will all but cease to exist. Be that as it may, many Baltic Russians feel disgruntled and are embittered at being left out of the political process and having their career opportunities limited. On the other hand, they know that, as members of the European Union, they enjoy the benefits and predictability of a rule-of-law society that does not exist in Russia. Even those who are noncitizens understand that they can easily obtain a passport, which will give them freedom to travel throughout the EU.

Parallel to this is the alarming rate of population decline in Estonia and Latvia. (Last year Latvia's population fell below 2.3 million.) Birth rates in both nations are below the so-called replacement rate. Add to this the fact that more young workers are taking advantage of labor mobility and moving to Ireland to work as bellhops and bartenders. Already in certain Baltic towns there is a labor deficit, and several employers 's such as VP Market 's have begun importing workers. (Indeed, Lithuania's population is also falling, but since the country has no stateless minority, and the very ethnic Russians are well integrated, the country is not wholly pertinent to this topic.)

Still, many regard the current demographic situation as a decent status quo. As Vaira Vike-Freiberga was quoted as saying in the beginning of the year, "Since restoration of Latvia's independence, the proportion of ethnic Latvians and non-Latvians in Riga has been leveled out with great effort. If people in large numbers come in from other countries, survival prospects for the Latvian nation will seriously decrease."

Perhaps, then, a more pertinent question is which governments 's Estonian, Latvian or Russian 's will value this "minority group" more. All three countries need the working hands, but if current trends continue, each government will have to compete for their loyalty. Sadly, many Balts would gladly watch ethnic Russians pack their bags and leave. But those Balts have yet to adequately answer the question about how their countries intend to continue economic expansion if the number of taxpayers decreases dramatically. A demographic tug-of-war is about to begin, and those with the proper long-term vision will win.
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