The image of Belarus propagated for domestic consumption by the authorities is one of relative prosperity, civil peace, and stability. However, that image is increasingly belied by the evident failure to take adequate measures to offset a looming demographic crisis. According to some analysts, the population of Belarus is declining at such a rate that its future extinction is a definite possibility.
In late November, the Ministry of Statistics and Analysis reported that in the first nine months of 2005, the population had declined by 38,600, and by November 1, it stood at 9,762,500. The death rate of 106,100 exceeded the birth rate of 67,500, with the most marked population drop in the northern province of Vitsebsk, followed by Minsk region, and Mahileu. These figures appear even more remarkable given the improvement in figures recently for infant mortality, which at 6.4 per 1,000 children born is comparable with the more prosperous countries of Europe (Narodnaya volya, November 22).
Over the course of 2004, the population declined by 49,000. In that period there was a notable contrast between the city and the village. Whereas the urban population rose by 10,500, the rural sector dropped by 59,500 people; and composed 2.74 million or just under 28% of the total (Narodnaya volya, February 22). In general, the high mortality rates in the republic owed much to a sharp rise in the number of deaths from infectious diseases, as well as respiratory illnesses, those connected with transport accidents, as well as a continuing rise in alcoholism (Belorusskiy rynok, March 14-20).
According to the Ministry of Public Health Care, there are more than 253,000 alcoholics and drug addicts in Belarus today, a rise of 4.1% over the figure for January 2005. The total includes more than 169,000 male alcoholics, 6,000 women, and 57,965 who are registered drug addicts. According to the chief health official in this sphere, Uladzimir Maksymchuk, only 22% of residents of Belarus lead a “sober way of life,” 42% drink occasionally, 26% drink quite frequently, and 10% drink habitually (Narodnaya volya, December 8).
The Belarusian government has directed periodic attention to these problems without coming up with any potential solutions. The press service of the president announced in the spring that a program for the revival and development of villages and collective farms to the year 2010 would soon be introduced, with an assigned sum of BR69.8 billion ($32.4 million) (Svobodnye novosti plus, March 30-April 6). Such a program would follow a 2002 law “On the Demographic Security of the Republic of Belarus,” as well as a national program “for the demographic security of Belarus 2006-2010,” and a program for the social and economic development and revival of the village (Narodnaya volya, April 26). But how can one revive a village system that is rapidly dying out, and in which by the year 2025, one in every three residents of the republic will be a pensioner? (CTV, August 11)
The population decline began in 1994 (it reached a peak of 10.24 million at the end of 1993), and according to figures produced by the UN, by the year 2050 there may be only 7 million people left in Belarus. Life expectancy for Belarusian men is 62.8 years, more than 13 years less than in Germany and France, and eight years less than in Poland. Women’s lifespan is considerably better at 74.3 years (Narodnaya volya, October 20).
According to Ivan Nikitchenka, a corresponding member of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, the government’s failure to respond adequately to the after-effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster has played a key role in the present crisis. He notes that nothing has changed for the better since the government adopted programs to improve rural life. Further, 1.8 million people continue to live in contaminated zones (about 60% in Homel oblast) and consume what they grow in their gardens. Of those who check their health at the Belarusian Institute of Radiation Medicine, 60-70% have excess radioactivity at critical levels in their body. There are more than 16,000 liquidators living in Belarus, he notes, and mortality rates among them rose sharply in 2002 compared to the previous decade, mostly through heart disease. Nikitchenka also notes that morbidity levels among children have increased by almost one-third, new cancers by 1.5 times, and blood diseases by 1.5 times (Narodnaya volya, April 26).
Chernobyl, however, is not the whole story. Other sources focus on what they describe as “family breakdown,” particularly when compared with the Soviet period. More than 23% of families consist of single parents, 37% of families have no children (a further 23.5% have one child), and nearly 30% of families have no working members. Moreover, about half the families have no children because of their difficult material situation. Almost 50% of family income is spent on food, and family members seek refuge in alcohol to assuage their stress and anxiety (Narodnaya volya, August 4).
The overall picture in Belarus belies the government’s portrayal of a healthy and flourishing society. Declines in the real value of wages, poor nutrition, and unhealthy lifestyles have exacerbated a situation made difficult by Chernobyl and the collapse of the USSR five years later.