Ageing: The Greatest Threat to Post-Soviet Society

The 11 countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are starting to wake up to one very big and shared problem: Ageing.

Over the next 10 years, demographics dictate pension reform is going to become a priority area as migrant workers who travelled to Moscow and Kazakhstan in the 1990s post-Soviet collapse start to retire only to find their home and adopted countries cannot provide social protection for them in old age.

In September Projects-Direct-Net travelled to Moscow and Bishkek to investigate the implications of these problems across this vast region on behalf of HelpAge International. The investigation found that while rights (migration), social protection (pension reform) and livelihoods (especially rural agriculture) are the three major issues being discussed throughout the region; Health (access to healthcare, standards of care at home and in old people’s homes and hospices) is the next thematic issue that governments will have to tackle. Elderly abuse is rife – but goes largely unreported.

Unlike the Global South the challenges for older people in relation to HIV and AIDS, emergencies or disaster relief are less of an issue. Equally while the development of social protection is important in the global South, it is the disappearance of social protection that is the most pressing issue in the former Soviet Union. Social protection is disappearing because of a number of factors.

First the Soviet pension system is still in place in a number of countries. Women in Russia retire aged 55. Some CIS countries have pushed the retirement age up, but pension provision is economically unsustainable.

Second both legal and illegal migration means that many people have not been contributing to their pension schemes in either their adopted country or their home country. By seeking employment abroad they also have lost their rights to social protection.

Third. Business and politics in this region are too closely related, and arouse suspicions among potential private pension policyholders. Following the several financial pyramid selling schemes, and bank collapses since the fall of the Soviet Union, ordinary people do not trust business to protect their money, nor do they trust the long term sustainability of major companies who frequently collapse or close at the whim of regional presidents.

A person coming up to retirement age has several stark choices. Firstly they need to decide if they will retire or continue working. As they age their need of medical services will increase, but until they go onto very low pensions (approximately $100 a month), these free services will not be available to them. So many wait and retire once they are ill. At that point they have a further choice: Live at home (increasingly alone) and receive a pension that does not cover basic needs, or leave town and go to an institutionalized state-run home many hours drive away from your family. These institutions are in the process of being amalgamated into larger homes in order to save costs. Those older people living alone may get assistance from untrained ‘social workers’ but this is mainly the provision of shopping and cleaning, rather than health monitoring and other support. There is a need to change the home care system and organize the provision at a regional level and bring older people closer to home.

These issues are compacted by the lack of voice for older people. Beyond HelpAge, there is no local CIS-wide independent body for ageing. Central Asia has AgeNet, a regional body of 47 organisations in 9 countries. But in Russia there is no national body for older people that is independent of government and the United Russia Party of President Putin. Consequently individuals and governments tend to be concerned about children first, animals second, invalids third, war veterans fourth and older people last. Test this by looking at the number of charities working with each sector. There are countless children’s charities but the number of organisations working with older people barely reach double figures. As one UN official said, if a government in the region is strapped for cash, the Ministry of Social Protection has a choice: Shall we make budget cuts for children or for older people? Of course both should be cut, but politically it’s children who always win.

Therefore an important entry point to the discussion about older people’s care is childcare. Migration means many grandparents are now burdened with childcare, and are effectively parenting millions of children in Central Asia while still living on their pension. Worryingly international finance bodies have started to notice the flow of remittances to move in the opposite direction. The fear is that the economic crisis means families in Central Asia are beginning to support the working age group in the northern cities of the CIS.

Ageing is moving up the political agenda in the region. A Russian oligarch has set up the first foundation (the Timchenko Foundation) that is starting to explore ageing in the country. The CIS is starting to discuss cross-border mutual pension claims similar to the EU’s agreements. This debate is likely to expand further to look at health and medical services for migrants of pensionable age. But governments in the region tend to think about older people only in terms of pensions. They are not considering other forms of social support. Kazakhstan for example might be better off in terms of social protection, but it still has very few old people’s homes, and the few that exist are difficult to access – because of corruption and mismanagement.

In Kyrgyzstan social protection became a popular element of government strategy after the 2010 unrest in Osh. The government saw an opportunity to send a message to people in rural areas that they were connected to government. However, in the last three years there have been 8 ministers of social protection, and the mood has subsequently shifted. The current ministry position has shifted and does not believe in social protection as a solution and prefers to speak of income generation and provision of social services.

In Russia the Ministry of Labour is currently reviewing the third major reform in the last 10 years of the pension system. Some critics say the reform is trying to break up the compulsory state pension system in the country and change it into a voluntary pension system run by private companies. Current debates on the reforms show it is extremely unpopular with people approaching pensionable age.

There is some hope. Elena Topoleva a member of the Commission in the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation pointed out that 10 years ago, no Russian would consider volunteering, or donating to charity, but now companies are rushing to get involved in corporate social responsibility actions, the Russian government is awarding grants to civil society and Just Giving- style websites abound. The debate on ageing is only just starting. In a decade the situation could be different. It has to be. Demographics suggest that we have just 15-20 years to sort this out.

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