Belarusian Demographic Trends: Rapid Ageing and Depopulation
In 2014, the Belarusian authorities started preparations for a new demographic security program. The problems facing Belarus are not unique in Europe, but in many ways they look worse than in most EU countries.
Belarus continues to face a trend of depopulation, and with a birth rate of 1.6, there appears to be no chance for it to sustain its current level, much less grow. Demographic pressures will force the government to raise the age of retirement, at least for women, from 55 to 60.
In neighbouring Poland the authorities have already raised the retirement age up to 67 in attempt to deal with its own demographic issues.
The healthcare and social security systems remain under a tremendous amount of pressure, as the number of people of working age in society is steadily declining. Mortality and fertility rates are not solely responsible for this trend, as emigration also affects Belarus' demographic situation. Many Belarusians say that the country "lacks the necessary hands to work."
To improve the situation, the state should, on the one hand, liberalise the economy, and on the other increase benefits for child bearers. When working on a new program of demographic security, the authorities must rely on real statistics, as the official data does not reflect the reality.
Belarusian Deteriorating Demography
Last month Mariana Shchotkina, the Minister of Labour and Social Protection, announced the launch of their new programme entitled Demographic Security of Belarus. The current programme ends in 2015. Its results were, overall, considered to be unsatisfactory, although Belarus has improved its position according to several indicators.
Since gaining its independence Belarus has lost about 750,000 people. According to official data, 2014 became the first year since 1994, when the nation's population saw an increase. However, this data is inadequate in assessing the nation's total population as Belarus' official statistics ignore the exact number of Belarusians who have emigrated.
Both independent and pro-government analysts say that the Belarusian National Statistical Committee is not presenting an honest picture. For one, they have concluded that the migration balance for Belarus is negative, meaning more people are leaving than coming in. When considering the overall picture, it is clear that the official statistics are not accurately portraying the true demographic dynamics at play in Belarus.
To ensure level of population replacement reaches an equilibrium, it is necessary for every woman to give birth to 2.15 children. At present, it is around 1.6 per woman in Belarus. Two-thirds of families have only one child. Belarus remains a country of broken marriages, as about half of all families split up and there is no reason to believe that this figure will change in the near future.
As it was 20 years ago, women in Belarus make up more than half of the population. According to official statistics, in early 2014 Belarus has 4,401 thousand men and 5,067 thousand women. Many Belarusian villages, where a predominantly elderly population lives, have only one man to a much numerous population of women co-inhabitants.
This is due to the well-documented fact that Belarusian men tend to die much younger than women. Male life expectancy in Belarus is about 67 years, while their female counterparts are living until they are approximately 77 years old. In neighbouring Poland these figures stands at 76 and 80 years respectively. According to the World Health Organisation, Belarusian males between 15-60 years of age are 3-4.5 more likely to die than males in the European Union.
Consequences of Demographic Failure
Many countries are struggling, and unsuccessfully so, with depopulation and ageing, but Belarus is unique in its own way.
Despite the high mortality and low fertility rates, the authorities have not carried out any pension reform. Belarusian women are permitted to retire at the age of 55 and men at 60. Many professions, such as the police, allow their employees to retire at 45. Further delays in pension reform will undoubtedly cost Belarus dearly in the future.
Without serious reform, the healthcare system will come under attack. Promoting a healthy lifestyle still appears to be an unpopular policy in the country, as Belarusians remain among the heaviest drinking and smoking nations in the world. The number of diseases will continue to be high, while Belarusian medicine remains largely in the hands of the state, which has less and less money for these services.
The system of social protection, without any reforms, will begin to buckle under the weight of a reduced number of people entering the workforce. Belarus remains a net emigration country, as there are more people leaving than coming. For this reason, this apparently permanent emigration trend will put additional pressure on the Belarusian budget as it struggles to maintain its workforce population at a healthy level. This will force the government to raise taxes, which could also lead to another bout of emigration. The government's attempts to impose a tax on the unemployed show how serious the situation is in Belarus as it struggles to find an influx of working hands to bolster its labour force.
The general concept of family values also appears to be rather foreign to Belarusians. Local organisations hardly take the time to deal with this problem, and churches do not have the opportunity to become engaged in this work. Last year, the government banned a march in defence of family values, even though the Orthodox and Catholic churches supported it. The state promotes family values only with its words, not with its actions. The Belarusian leadership is a case in point. In Belarus, nobody knows precisely where Lukashenka's wife lives, nor who gave birth to Lukashenka`s youngest.
Is There any Chance to Rectify the Situation?
It seems rather unlikely that Belarus will be able to reverse the current trend of demographic decline, a process that has been unfolding over the past 20 years. Many people choose not to have children or to have only one for financial reasons, and the Belarusian government has no money to provide a high level of well-distributed social benefits for its citizens. An average Belarusian teacher earns about $400 monthly, while a doctor brings in only $ 600. With these kinds of salaries, many Belarusians are simply afraid to have a two or three child family.
According to a UN forecast, by 2025 the population of Belarus will drop down to 8.6 million people. The rate of economic growth will also continue to decrease. Without the necessary funds, carrying out reforms to deal with its demographic issues will be difficult, and waiting any longer will make them even more difficult to implement. These reforms must be pursued as soon as possible.
The Belarusian government must start priming its policy based on real data, not on the current National Statistical Office`s information. The authorities have to liberalise the economy, which can help in an effort to have more people stay in Belarus and even convince some emigrants to return. The state will be forced, at one point, to implement pension reform in order to avoid a full collapse in its the social security system. Raising the retirement age for women to mirror that of men can be a good start.
Dealing with the nation's low fertility rate remains one of the most difficult tasks at hand, as it is necessary to provide parents a large payout at the time of birth and for several years after a child is born. Also, the state must drastically revise its strategy in promoting family values. If the authorities accomplish these tasks, Belarus will have at least a shot at correcting the current demographic situation.
Kremlin’s Aggression in Ukraine Frightens Lukashenka – Belarus Security Digest
The Kremlin's aggressive actions in Ukraine have scared Minsk. The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) dreams about its own missile defence system. However, the organisation failed to re-equip even its 20,000-strong rapid reaction force for the past five years already.
Minsk, while criticising Ukraine for having failed to mount a stand against the Russians, has to demonstrate its loyalty towards the Kremlin. New Russian aircraft has arrived in Belarus; nobody can say for how long. Belarusian defence and law-enforcement agencies lack would-be officers. This and more in this issue of Belarus Security Digest.
The Russian invasion in Ukraine clearly frightened the Belarusian authorities
It should be noted that in the last month the Belarusian authorities have built their belligerent rhetoric on the basis negative comparisons with the Ukrainian army. The failure of the latter to offer resistance to Russian aggression in Crimea is irritating to Minsk.
To put it bluntly, the fact that Ukrainian soldiers refrained from fighting Russian soldiers outraged the Belarusian authorities. In fact, such statements confirm the thesis that:
- Minsk perceived Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a direct threat to Belarus;
- the Belarusian authorities are counting on Ukraine to become a second Poland, i.e. a country that remains hostile and a rival to Russia.
It should be noted that both the authorities and the Belarusian opposition have in fact the same negative disposition towards the annexation of Crimea. Only the latter can speak openly about it. Clearly, Russia has lost the information war not only in Ukraine and in the West but also in the eyes of the Belarusian ruling elite.
Towards a Unified Air Defence and Missile Defence System
On 5 March 2014, a meeting of the Military Committee at the Council of Ministers of Defence of the CSTO member states took place in Moscow on the basis of the Joint Staff of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Among other things, the participants discussed prospects for setting up the Joint (Unified) CSTO Air Defence and Missile Defence System.
The initiative to establish the joint CSTO air defence and missile defence system is another attempt by Moscow to place the defence potential of post-Soviet CIS countries under its full control. In return, Moscow will provide some assistance in equipping and developing the defence infrastructure of the member states.
However, Russia will invest only in those projects which it itself needs in the first place. The traditional flakiness in implementing its agreements and the habitual lack of consistency of the leadership of post-Soviet countries means that these plans will remain precisely that – just plans.
Difficulties with Re-equipping the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Force
On 13 March 2014, CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha said that the issue of discharging Russia of its obligations with regards to equipping of the Collective Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF) with modern weaponry and military equipment on the basis of the programme adopted in 2011 remained acute. But in general, the history of re-equipping of the Collective Force began back in 2009.
Obviously, the CSTO member states place full responsibility for re-equipment of the CRRF on Russia seeing it as the party most concerned with the alliance's existence. Currently, the Russian budget does not make provisions for extensive resources to arm its allies.
The need to incur costs can seem even more doubtful to Russia as none of its "allies" in CSTO has supported it unambiguously in the conflict with Ukraine. This is yet further proof of the thesis that alliances between post-Soviet countries are, to a greater or lesser degree, of a strictly formal nature.
Moscow's coffers are shrinking. And it is clear that this is a long-term trend. In connection with this the probability remains high that re-equipping of CSTO's rapid force units will drag on indefinitely and may become irrelevant at some point. This does not preclude Russia's continued support to CIS countries through the supply of weapons and military equipment, but it may be on a bilateral basis.
Additional Russian Aircraft Deployed in Belarus
On 12 March 2014, the Security Council of Belarus met. At the meeting, Lukashenka demanded a guarantee of the transfer of additional Russian fighters to Belarus following the build-up of NATO's military presence near Belarus' borders. Measures to strengthen air defence were announced. And the very next day, the redeployment of six fighters Su-27CM3 and three military airlift aircraft with staff to the airfield in Babrujsk took place.
On 15 March 2014, a Russian airborne early warning plane A-50 arrived at the airfield in Baranavichy. The Belarusian authorities linked further parameters of Russian air presence to NATO's actions. However, they decreased sharply the level of anti-NATO rhetoric later.
Alexander Lukashenka on Prospects of National Defence
On 23 March 2014, Alexander Lukashenka made a number of statements about the current self-defence situation.
The Belarusian leader clarified the issue of the delivery of four battalions of the S-300 air defence missile system, which Russia promised to Belarus back in April 2011. Allegedly, "…Russia said that it could not give us S-300 for next to nothing."
At the same time, Russia supplied a larger quantity of S-300s to Kazakhstan free of charge. It should be recalled that initially there were plans to transfer additional weapons to Belarus free of charge. Minsk was supposed to pay only the shipping costs, cost of repairs as well as pay the price tag for their modernisation.
The Belarusian leader also said that there was no need for a deployment of Russian aircraft to Belarus though he, Lukashenka, was personally not against it and would even be happy to have them on Belarusian soil. Translated into normal language this means that Minsk was not enthusiastic about the prospects of an increased Russian military presence, but if Russia exerts pressure it would not be able to do anything but to depict joy.
At the same time, while Russian fighters, which are already on duty in Belarus, remain at the disposal of the Belarusian command, Minsk would like to get its hands on aircraft without Russian pilots.
When answering a question about how long the Russian aircraft would remain on Belarusian soil, Alexander Lukashenka said that the duration of stay of the Russian fighters would depend on Belarus alone, i.e. on Alexander Lukashenka personally.
Alexander Lukashenka confirmed once again that the special operations forces and the air defence remained the main priority of the developing the nation's military strength. This is a long-held position. It is dictated by the inability to maintain and develop their national armed forces in a balanced manner, including a build-up of the capacity of its mechanised troops.
However, if the decline of the general-purpose forces continues, it is not totally clear who will protect the air defence forces against attacks on terrestrial enemy forces in circumstances where its own air force is degraded and its numerical strength is insufficient.
He also announced plans to modernise 10 Belarusian Su-27 and MiG-29 planes by the end of this year. According to Alexander Lukashenka, the Belarusian authority hopes to continue to exploit its Soviet aviation heritage until 2025 by maintaining the combat readiness of the equipment left over after the collapse of the USSR.
Staff Shortage in Belarusian Defence and Law-Enforcement Agencies
Belarus plans to change the procedure for admissions to institutions of higher education for its defence and law-enforcement agencies by giving priority in enrolment to motivated applicants (graduates of military and cadet schools; military servicemen).
There appears to be only two reasons for this – the unsatisfactory "quality" of its applicants and an insufficient number of applicants who pass the exams successfully.
The students who have experience in military service or have studied in paramilitary schools adapt better to life "by the book" than civilian youth. They are also more motivated to build their career in defence and law-enforcement agencies.
Additional measures to improve the situation with staffing the higher education institutions of defence and law-enforcement agencies could include levelling down requirements for the health requirements and school grades of applicants.
Andrei is the head of “Belarus Security Blog” analytical project.