An alert reader in Russia drew my attention to a Mosnews article from last week. It seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin recently paid a visit to Chechnya an billed himself as a friend and protector of Islam:
Putin Calls Russia Defender of Islamic World
Russia is the most reliable partner of the Islamic world and most faithful defender of its interests, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Chechnya’s capital Grozny. Putin unexpectedly visited the war-ravaged republic to speak in the local parliament that opened for its first sitting on Monday.
“Russia has always been the most faithful, reliable and consistent defender of the interests of the Islamic world. Russia has always been the best and most reliable partner and ally. By destroying Russia, these people (terrorists) destroy one of the main pillars of the Islamic world in the struggle for rights (of Islamic states) in the international arena, the struggle for their legitimate rights,” Putin was quoted by Itar —Tass as saying, drawing applause from Chechen parliamentarians.
If President Bush is to be believed, Russia is “a reliable partner in the War on Terror.” Do I smell a conflict of interest here? Can a “reliable and consistent defender of the interests of the Islamic world” also combat Islamic terrorism effectively under all circumstances?
A related story reports that the Russian parliament has voted to grant amnesty to Chechen terrorists. If a “militant” quits a recognized terrorist group and surrenders his arms, no further questions will be asked.
The end of the Mosnews story has this little piece of information, which may shed some light on Mr. Putin’s motives:
Russia, a country with a total population of approximately 144 million, has 23 million Muslim residents representing 38 peoples, according to the Council of Muftis of Russia.
That’s 16% of the population, which is a higher proportion of Muslims than in the population of India. And not only that, the population of Christians in Russia is declining much more drastically than that of the Hindus in India.
So Russia has a demographic problem. But the Russian government is aware of it: another news story outlines a state initiative designed to persuade Russians to start breeding again:
In a move clearly aimed at encouraging more births in this country, a top government official has come up with a plan to re-introduce the long-abandoned childless tax in Russia.
Speaking to the press after a seminar that focused on low birth rates in Russia health and social development minister Mikhail Zurabov suggested that childless taxpayers should help the state support families with children and thus at least partially assume the cost of encouraging more births.
In his state of the nation address earlier this year President Vladimir Putin said the most urgent problem facing Russia was its demographic crisis.
That’s one of those rare instances when Vladimir Putin and Mark Steyn agree on something.
Russia’s problem is much more severe than India’s, because the non-Muslim population in India is simply growing more slowly than the Muslim population, whereas Russia’s non-Muslim population is actually declining in absolute terms.
The country’s population is declining by at least 700,000 people each year, leading to slow depopulation of the northern and eastern extremes of Russia, the emergence of hundreds of uninhabited “ghost villages” and an increasingly aged workforce. Official Russian forecasts, along with those from international organizations like the UN, predict a decline from 146 million to between 80 and 100 million by 2050.
But in an exclusive interview to the BBC, Viktor Perevedentsev, who has been studying Russia’s population since the 1960s, said he believed even these figures may be overly optimistic. He said the decline was likely to accelerate and that the Russian leadership should accept the population had reached a “tipping point”, beyond which direct intervention would be ineffective.
The article doesn’t list the growth rate of the Muslim minority, but if Muslims in Russia are breeding like Muslims in nearby countries, a back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that in two generations they may well represent more than half the population.
Mr. Putin is a relatively young man, and presumably hopes to remain in power for the rest of his natural life. It seems that he has sensed which way the demographic winds are blowing, and has trimmed his sails to take advantage of this particular breeze.
The Mosnews article about Russia’s demographic crisis has some additional commentary on the topic. The editorialist does not see Russia as being fundamentally different from the rest of Europe, but merely the worst-off in a set of demographic basket cases:
But, experts see no reason to believe that sanctions against the childless will do much to raise the birthrate. Germany, for instance, already spends more than any other country on family subsidies, and has the world’s second-highest taxes on childless singles (after Belgium).
Russian observers also doubt that such measures as re-introduction of childless tax in Russia will prompt people to have children. While rights activists denounce sanctions against the childless defending their freedom of choice, even those who back the idea in principle are not sure it will work.
These days in Russia many married couples are reluctant about having babies, even if they are well-off and can afford to multiply. Many of the generation of those who are now in their 30s and 40s have already developed a set of personal values and there is hardly a place for a kid in their lives. Maybe, they would not mind a surcharge to exonerate themselves. If, of course, they ever experience any pangs of guilt…
The idea of bribing people into having babies will hardly work for middle class tax payers, who earn well enough not to ask for more from the government. As to fining people for not having babies, international experience shows that such schemes are not effective either. Besides, in a country where many employers are still reluctant to report their workers’ incomes in full to avoid taxation, the plan is even more likely to fail.
Another reason why bribing people into having babies or forcing them into it through sanctions would not work is that our reluctance is rooted in our consumer mentality. We are no givers, but a generation of egoists whose choice between a screaming infant and a Zermatt ski vacation is easy to guess…
A childless tax? Well, perhaps, it is not such a bad idea, after all, as long as its size is reasonable. For, if it is not Russian taxpayers will not pay it. Instead, they will rather pay a doctor who will confirm their infertility. [emphasis added]
As Mark Steyn has frequently pointed out, it is a mistake to view demographic issues in purely economic terms. According to classical economic analysis, in earlier days couples had large families in order to assure themselves of financial security in their old age; that is, the explanation for high birthrates was purely an economic one.
By this argument, socialism and the welfare state have removed these incentives by providing lifelong security even for the childless. Hence people stop having babies, and the demographic crisis ensues.
But what if there are other non-economic reasons for having children?
There’s a well-established correlation between strong religious beliefs and family size. And it’s not just that the Bible says “be fruitful and multiply”, and the faithful behave like mindless automata and obey.
Having kids is an exhausting, thankless, and expensive task that takes up the most productive and energetic years of your life. If you believe there’s nothing to life but this material world and your own desires and pleasures, why would you decide to undertake such a burdensome effort? Better to enjoy the moment, not think about death, and live the good life while you can.
In the absence of a belief in something larger than oneself, no amount of state subsidy or punishment will be adequate to reverse the demographic disaster that is looming before the end of this century. Russia and Japan are simply worst-case scenarios; the same fate awaits the rest of Europe, Canada, China, and maybe even the United States.
The new generation that greets the dawn of the 22nd century will believe in something. The only question is whether it will be Allah or something else.
Hat Tip: commenter npabga.
As a matter of interest, I figured out the origin of the nickname “npabga”: it’s a visual simulacrum of the Russian word “правда”, or “pravda” (Russian for “truth”). Instead of transliterating the word, he has made the closest approximation to it in appearance, using lower-case Latin letters. Very clever.
Update (from Dymphna): I’d just like to mention — casually, of course — that on Mark Steyn’s mailbox page THERE’S A LINK TO THIS GATES OF VIENNA POST. Oh. My. God! Look on the right sidebar, under the headline “Russia: Bear Necessities”.
Better go look now; who knows how long it’ll be there? Just casually, though…