Russia's Complexity

Today's Russia doesn't present a pretty picture. It's a scene of decline on many fronts - the economy, healthcare, defense, among them.

As the lead article in today's Ideas section (see page 15) makes clear, the big demographic picture portends disaster for a country that not long ago took pride in itself as one of the world's two superpowers.

Can the demographic slide - fewer people, less healthy people, lower birth rates - be arrested? In a half century, Russia could have fewer people than Vietnam or Mexico. What does that say about the global vigor of the Russian bear?

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Divining the future of a complex society of 146 million people is tricky, at best.

Consider some other statistics. Surprisingly, given Russia's 45 percent economic shrinkage in the '90s, today's Russian is much more likely to have a phone in the home than in the recent past - 50.1 phones for every 100 households in 1998, versus 24.5 in '85, according to figures compiled by researchers at Harvard University. Similarly, in 1999, 40 of every 100 households had a car. In 1985, the number was 14.

No wonder General Motors thinks Russia is enough of a growth market to justify teaming up with a carmaker there, AO Avtovaz, to produce small, affordable SUVs.

Official economic statistics don't take into account Russia's "shadow" economy, which accounts for much of the country's buying and selling.

One other statistical note: In 2000, more than 4 million Russians were enrolled in higher education. That's 1-1/2 times the number in 1992, and more than at any time during the Soviet era.

While life may be better for some Russians, much still depends on the economic, political, and legal reforms begun in the early '90s and still largely undone.

Economic progress would go a long way toward alleviating Russia's healthcare crisis, not least by reducing the country's rampant alcoholism.

President Vladimir Putin talks reform, saying the right things on subjects like legal protections for private property. But he seems a creature of the past when it comes to political change. Central control is all too often his theme.

Russia's picture is clouded and grim, but it's also complex. Individual Russians have some new freedoms - ranging from consumer choice to educational opportunity to more freedom of worship - and many are exercising them. Those choices, too, could figure in the country's long-range prospects.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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