3 Things Barack Obama Got Wrong About Russia

3 Things Barack Obama Got Wrong About Russia

President Barack Obama recently gave an interview to The Economist in which he was pretty clearly doing his best to give Vladimir Putin an aneurysm:

Obama downplayed Moscow’s role in the world, dismissing President Vladimir Putin as a leader causing short-term trouble for political gain that will hurt Russia in the long term.

“I do think it’s important to keep perspective. Russia doesn’t make anything,” Obama said in the interview.

“Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking,” he said.

Obama has managed to compress a pretty startling amount of factual inaccuracy into just 3 short sentences. Let’s take his claims in order.

1) “Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity” 

One of the first things that anyone notices when they are in Moscow is the enormous number of immigrants from Central Asia. Probably the single most noteworthy and inescapable feature of modern Russian life is the prevalence of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who have already rushed to Moscow “in search of opportunity.” It’s impossible to miss them.

If for some reason you distrust the official statistics that demonstrate the huge numbers of immigrants moving to Russia, maybe you’d be willing to listen to liberal darling Alexey Navalny. Navalny, you see, is actively agitating on behalf of aggressive anti-immigration policies, recently writing yet another blog post bemoaning the massive numbers of Muslim “guest workers.”  Navalny’s (popular) campaign only makes sense if there are large numbers of immigrants. Indeed a media outlet fully funded by Barack Obama’s very own government recently produced an interesting video showing how Eid Al-Fitr was celebrated in Moscow by the throngs of immigrants that are (you guessed it) there “in search of opportunity.”

Russia is widely acknowledged to be the world’s second most popular destination for immigrants after the United States, and several of the most consequential political disagreements in Russian society revolve around the question of how to deal with immigration. Anyone who thinks that Russia isn’t dealing with a significant debate over immigration simply doesn’t know anything about the country.

2) “The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old”

The life expectancy of the Russian male isn’t a subject of conjuncture or obscure philosophical inquiry, it is a number that is very easily found on the public-facing website of the Russian state statistics service. In 2013, the average male life expectancy in Russia was a little bit above 65 (technically it was 65.14). When Obama says that life expectancy is “around 60″ he’s off by about 8%. With a similar margin of error we could say that Barack Obama is the 41st president of the United States, that he won 47% of the vote in the 2012 presidential election, and that he was born in 1957. 8% is a margin of error that people rarely feel confident using, because it very quickly makes you sound rather ill-informed and ignorant.

It is still possible, of course, to argue that Russian male life expectancy is low. In comparison to other countries in the region it is rather low. But there’s a difference between 65 and 60. One is factually accurate and one isn’t. For some reason Obama chose to go with the inaccurate one, and it’s worth pointing out as much.

3) “The population is shrinking”

Obama’s statement is a perfect example of why I so frequently write about a topic as seemingly obscure and boring as Russian demography: people from the US political elite almost always make huge mistakes when talking about it. Russia’s population is not shrinking, it is growing. The Russian population isn’t just growing in 2014, it also grew in 2013. And 2012. And 2011. And 2010. And 2009. Unless you get into a Bill Clinton-like debate over the meaning of the word “is,” it’s impossible to argue that Russia’s population is shrinking. It was shrinking in the past and it is likely to shrink in the future, but it is not shrinking at the present moment. Not a very complicated concept.

I’m fully aware, of course, that Russian demography is not the most important issue in the world. Countries will not rise and fall because Barack Obama used out of date information on Russian life expectancy. But it really does not say anything good about Obama’s team that they allowed not one, not two, but three blatant factual inaccuracies to sneak into a sit-down interview with the press. Before doing an interview like this, someone as powerful as Obama will have a small army of researchers and assistants running around to help him prepare. Apparently none of them could be bothered to do a few basic Google GOOGL +0.23% searches.

In today’s world, it is not that difficult to get accurate demographic information, and it’s a little bit disconcerting that no one on Obama’s team was able to do so.

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