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Ossetian Population Plummets

Ossetia's demographic crisis coincides with a population boom in rival Ingushetia
By Valeri Dzutsev

Economic depression and widespread disillusionment are thought to lie at the root of a growing population crisis in North Ossetia.


The death rate overtook the birth rate in the mid-1990s and since then the trend has followed a downward spiral. In 1999, the North Ossetian population - estimated at 670,000 -- fell by 1,217 and the situation is showing few signs of improving.


Local sociologists and psychologists blame the phenomenon on the bleak economic climate which grips the North Caucasian republic. Here most families live on the poverty line and are unable to offer their children many basic necessities.


Even a good education cannot guarantee young people better prospects - at the end of five years' training, a newly qualified teacher can expect to receive just $15 a month.


Manual and unqualified work promises comparatively higher salaries - girls favour jobs as seamstresses and shop assistants whilst men enrol as security guards or police officers.


Hemmed in by such bleak horizons, nearly 50 per cent of newly married couples get divorced within a year.


The government in Vladikavkaz is particularly concerned with the contrasting situation in neighbouring Ingushetia which currently enjoys the highest birth rate in the Russian Federation.


The two republics have been at loggerheads since the bloody fighting of 1992 when thousands of Ingush were forced to flee from the Prigorodny region of North Ossetia. Now Vladikavkaz politicians are concerned that the population imbalance will trigger further territorial disputes and leave Ossetia at a numerical disadvantage.


Consequently, the leadership conducts repeated campaigns aimed at promoting marriage and family values. These campaigns hinge mainly on comparisons with the situation in Ingushetia and appeals to young people's patriotism.


The phenomenon is very new to North Ossetia - at the beginning of the century, North Ossetian families had an average of 6.6 children - compared to just 5.5 in Ingushetia.


However, members of the older generation say the drop in the birth rate has nothing to do with the economic situation which, they argue, is significantly better than it was after the Second World War when large families were the rule rather than the exception.


They say that people in North Ossetia are overwhelmed by a sense of social injustice - by the huge gap between the rich and the poor as well as the nepotism and clan mentality which preclude any chances of self-advancement.


The situation, they claim, has bred widespread apathy which in turn has driven thousands of young people to drug abuse.


There are more than 7,000 registered drug addicts in North Ossetia today - but the real figure is thought to be 10 times higher. The majority of these addicts are under 30 - the usual marrying age in the North Caucasian republics.


Valeri Dzutsev is a regular IWPR contributor


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