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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's population fell by nearly 3.4 million over the past decade, census results showed on Monday, underscoring a demographic crisis that could slow growth and hurt a Kremlin bid to compete with China and India.
The Kremlin has tried to boost population growth, fearing that fewer births in an ageing population will sap the economy, especially with a pension age of 55. The demographic black hole is expected to take 1 million workers out of the economy every year until 2017.
A nationwide census carried out in October 2010 showed that Russia's population fell to 142.9 million from 145.2 million in 2002, when the last census was taken, and from 146.3 million in 2001, according to Russia's Federal Statistics Service.
The declining population is a major feature of long-term models which indicate Russia's economic growth will lag far behind BRICS rivals China and India. The grouping also includes top emerging market performers Brazil and South Africa.
"The Russian demographic is such that if you look at official projections, Russia will lose a lot of population and end up with 120 million people in 20 to 30 years," said Alexander Morozov, chief economist for Russia at HSBC.
"Certain measures related with growth policy can marginally help, but not reverse the trend," he said.
Russia's population decline started in 1995, shortly after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Birth rates and life expectancy plummeted amid the chaos of the 1990s.
The 2010 census shows that the economic boom that Vladimir Putin presided over as Kremlin chief from 2000 to 2008 has had little impact on Russia's dire demographics despite Moscow's attempts to increase birth rates.
Russia's economy soared under the Putin years from $200 billion in 1999, a year before Putin took office, to $1.7 trillion in 2008 as state coffers swelled on rising oil and commodity prices.
U.S. bank Goldman Sachs predicts that Russia's economy will grow by between 1.5 and 4.4 percent a year from 2011 to 2050, roughly half as fast as China and India.
President Dmitry Medvedev, who was head of special programmes aimed at expanding the population before he was steered into the presidency by his mentor Putin, said Russia may be beating population decline.
State statistics showed that Russia's population was 141.9 million in 2009, indicating a rise of nearly 1 million people last year.
The first census in 1897 of the Russian Empire, which was similar in size to the Soviet Union, counted a population of 125.6 million people.
The census data showed Russia's already sparsely-populated Far East had declined the most, with the population falling 6 percent from the last census to 6.291 million as young people move to bigger cities in search of jobs.
Economic migrants from former Soviet countries in the Caucasus and central Asian regions have helped make up for falling birth rates in the past, though demographers have said more must be done to encourage migration.
But far from encouraging migration, violence in Russia against ethnic minorities has deterred most non-Slavic migrants.
Last year police struggled to contain nationalist youths protesting the death of a football fan killed by a North Caucasus native. The youths grew violent, attacking non-Slavic looking passengers on a rampage through the Moscow metro.
Reporting by Thomas Grove; editing by Elizabeth Piper