Demographic Shifts Change Power Relations Within and Between Post-Soviet States

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 21

(Source: Astana Times)

Over the last 30 years, demographic shifts in each of the post-Soviet countries have changed power relations both within and between them. The most obvious changes are in the size of the populations of each state, with declines in nine of the fifteen and increases registered only in the six former Soviet Muslim-majority countries. At the same time, ethnic homogenization in favor of the respective titular nationalities has been an unrelenting process in each of the 15—except for the Russian Federation, which has become more ethnically diverse over the past three decades. The first of these changes means that the demographic center of gravity in Eurasia is increasingly shifting to the east and south, away from Russia: youth are a growing share of the population in the Muslim-majority countries of the former Soviet space, while the nations in Russia and all the rest have been aging. The second demographic shift—decreasing ethnic diversity in each post-Soviet country surrounding Russia—is having a three-fold effect. It is putting those governments under mounting pressure to reflect the views of the titular majority. Moscow is rapidly losing the Russian diasporas on which it has traditionally relied to maintain influence and control over neighboring states. And Russia’s government is under rising pressure from its own population to limit (non-ethnic-Russian) immigration and boost Russian birthrates (Vedomosti, December 26, 2021; RBC, December 9, 2021).

But within these broader trends are evolving developments that may have an even more immediately profound impact. Among them, three are particularly important now: 1) the formation of an enormously large Russian diaspora in the West, 2) the flight of Armenians from their own war-torn country, and 3) the transformation of Kazakhstan from a bi-national state in which ethnic Russians play a critical role into a mono-ethnic one that is far more like the rest of Central Asia, even if most of its people still speak the language of the former metropolitan center.

Russia’s demographic decline reflects not only its falling birthrates and rising per capita deaths but also massive emigration. Moscow has attempted to compensate by promoting immigration, but so far, that attempt has been only partially successful and is likely to be less so in the coming years. Indeed, Russia’s population decline has been, above all, the story of the demographic collapse of the Russian nation. Last year, residents of the Russian Federation decreased by over a million as the result both of more deaths (partially due to COVID-19) and fewer births and the increasingly massive exodus of Russians to live and work abroad (IA Realist, January 29, 2022). Immigrant workers have not been able to compensate for this domestic contraction either quantitatively or, more importantly qualitatively, given that most of the immigrant workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus are unskilled laborers, while the majority of Russians going abroad are from the youngest and most educated segment of the population (RBC,, November 19, 2021).

The Kremlin recognizes it is under tightening constraints especially with regard to this brain drain and the shrinking number of ethnic Russians living in Russia’s borderlands (see EDM, February 10). Therefore, it is seeking to attract back the Russians who have settled abroad and even to encourage Russians to move back to the country’s border regions. But Moscow-based experts are nearly unanimous that the Russian government will fail to attract anything like the half million—out of a total estimated diaspora of ten million beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union—in the next several years. Whereas, prospects for an ethnic-Russian return to the North Caucasus are dim as well (, October 26, 2021;, February 13, 2022; see EDM, September 21, 2021).

Some Russians express hope that the diaspora in Europe and North America will play a positive role in the future transformation of their country—serving as a kind of “West Russia” like West Germany played for East Germany at the time of unification (Novaya Gazeta, December 24, 2021). But that possibility, to the extent it even exists, is yet another reason for concern in the Kremlin about what the new Russian diaspora means.

The demographic situation in Armenia is simpler and more alarming. In 2021, Armenians leaving the country exceeded the number entering it by almost 44,000, a record for the post-Soviet period and one that reverses the positive balance Yerevan had recorded in recent years. This figure reflects both the deteriorating economic situation there and pessimism in the wake of the 2020 fighting with Azerbaijan. No one can say precisely what the total population of Armenia is at present, but it is certainly far smaller than the three million officially recorded back in 2011. Another enumeration was supposed to happen in 2020 but was postponed because of the pandemic. Yerevan hopes to conduct a census this year (EurasiaNet, February 10, 2022).

This decline not only undermines the chances that Armenia will be able to turn the corner on the economy but also, and more importantly, undercuts its ability to field a large enough military force to counter Azerbaijan with the latter’s growing demographic and economic capabilities. Simply put, there will be fewer 18-year-old Armenians available to serve in uniform, either because of lower birthrates in recent years or emigration; this will make Russian security guarantees that much more crucial.

Meanwhile, demographic changes in Kazakhstan are encouraging to many Kazakhs but profoundly worrying to ethnic Russians there—and to Moscow as well. As any number of Kazakh commentators point out, Kazakhstan is becoming “a mono-ethnic state,” the result of a combination of higher growth rates among ethnic Kazakhs, the return of ethnic Kazakhs from abroad, and ethnic-Russian flight. As recently as 1989, ethnic Kazakhs barely outnumbered ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan—40.1 percent to 37.4 percent, respectively. By 2009, the Central Asian republic’s Kazakhs formed 63.1 percent while Russians had declined to 23.7 percent. Now, ethnic Russians have shrunk to 18 percent; and some project that by mid-century, they will form less than 5 percent of Kazakhstan’s overall population (Biznes Online, February 13).

If those forecasts are correct, Kazakhstan will be less “Russian” than it has been in 200 years and more like its Central Asian neighbors. Such a development will allow the Kazakhs to view themselves, as first and foremost, a Central Asian country, while leaving Moscow with far fewer options for influence there and in the broader region. Political leaders typically imagine they can compensate for any such demographic changes; but in most cases, they are hamstrung by them. As a result, they are eventually forced to change their policies more than they can affect the demographic realities they must live with.