WASHINGTON (CN) - A shrinking Russian population, driven down by frequent alcohol-related deaths of men, is contributing to growing tensions between threatened ethnic Russians and Muslims. "I think that Russians are going to have an Islamic problem," Georgetown University Visiting Professor Shireen Hunter said Thursday.
Russia's population problem is driving ethnic Russians to feel more threatened by the Muslim population, Institute of World Politics Professor Paul Goble said at the Helsinki Commission briefing on Capitol Hill.
Russia has the same low birthrate as Italy, but population size is falling much more sharply than in Italy, due in large part to the exceptionally high death rate of Russian men, who often die from alcohol-related accidents.
The population problem is compounded by a phenomenon where mixed offspring of ethnic Russians and immigrants identify themselves mostly with their non-Russian heritage, whereas in past generations, the mixed progeny identified themselves as Russians nearly all the time.
"You have a sense that your own identity is slipping away," Goble said, adding that there are now loud calls to bar all immigration.
The clash is magnifying long-held divisions.
Muslims are still second-class citizens in Russia, Hunter said, explaining the growing polarity during the briefing. "Russian Muslims historically have always wanted to have some form of self-government."
Even Georgians and Armenians, who are largely Christian, are being attacked, Hunter said, because they look darker than what some might call ethnic Russians.
Former Russian President Vladimir Putin eliminated the possibility for Muslims to have local political parties when he came to power, because he insisted that parties have offices in a specified amount of districts. Because the Russian Muslim populations are concentrated in Russia, Muslim political parties had difficulty satisfying the requirements.
The Russian census methods, as Goble put it, are "totally fraudulent" and are also undermining the immigrant-derived population. In 2002, the government counted roughly 65 percent of its population before announcing that it did not have enough funds to finish the count.
Goble said the faulty results allowed Russia to say that the ethnic Russian population fell by one percent as compared to 1989 levels, whereas the true number is probably closer to a six percent drop in population.
This taking place in a context where european nations are increasingly taking anti-Muslim stances. Weeks ago, Switzerland banned Islamic minarets on mosques. And French Immigration Minister Eric Besson said Wednesday that he wants the wearing of the Islamic veil to be grounds for denying citizenship and residence status in France. France has long forbidden women from wearing the Islamic veil in schools.
The Helsinki Commission is an independent federal agency charged with overseeing compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords, established between European countries, the United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic to respect established borders and sovereignty.