- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 28, 2002

ZOLOTUKHA, Russia The deal Natasha was offered was simple: prove she was fertile, that her husband was not an alcoholic and agree to having three children in five years.
In exchange, the local council would buy her a house. If she fulfilled her child-bearing obligations, there would be no repayments to make, and, after five years, no money due.
The babies-for-houses program was introduced this year in Ahtubinsk, a poverty-stricken region of southern Russia. It is a desperate attempt to reverse the falling birthrate that could depopulate parts of the area.
The problem is one shared by all of Russia. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, AIDS, alcoholism and poverty have pushed the country's population into decline.
According to some predictions, at present rates the population could fall from 143 million to 90 million by 2050.
Last year, President Vladimir Putin said the problem threatened the very existence of Russia.
In Soviet times, Ahtubinsk was a proud town. Chosen as a secret testing center for Sukhoi fighter aircraft, it was home to thousands of pilots.
Now most have left, the only restaurant is shabby and empty, and the local market sells cheap goods from China and Vietnam and unappetizing salty fish. The blocks of houses have been neglected, and inches of mud cover the pavements and roads.
But the biggest problem is the lack of babies.
In the region, officials say, 1,300 people died last year and only 848 children were born.
Now, frustrated at what they say is a lack of determination to deal with the problem at the top, local authorities have decided to take matters into their own hands.
Alexei Furik, the regional administrator who dreamt up the homes scheme, said, "Since the collapse of the USSR, we have been losing 2 percent of our population a year. The government and the president always talk about this problem, but they never do anything. So we decided to act alone."
Setting aside 1 percent of the local budget, council officials began advertising for applicants at the beginning of the year.
Since then, they have financed 10 new homes. They say that of the couples who signed up, four already have babies and several more are pregnant.
"We have been forced to turn away families this year because the budget has run out," said Irina Lesenko, an official in charge of looking for houses and approving applications. "Next year, we hope to allocate more money, as there is a great demand."
Each couple who signs up is contractually obliged to have three babies in five years.
If they only have two, they have to return half the cost of the house. For one baby, the figure is two-thirds.
Couples must be under 30 and provide solid work references. The man must prove he is not an alcoholic or drug abuser, and the woman must undergo a medical test to show that she can have children.
If all is well, contracts are drawn up and signed and the couple can begin the search for a house. With the local property market in the doldrums, $1,000 to $2,000 can usually secure a house.
Natasha and Konstantin chose a neat, well-kept house in the village of Zolotukha, which came with a cowshed, a chicken pen and a traditional Russian bathhouse.
Standing on the house steps holding 3-month-old Dasha, their first "contracted" baby, Natasha said, "Konstantin and I have only just got married, but we would never have had enough money to buy our own house. We wanted to have children anyway perhaps only two but now we will have three."

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