- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

Russia is losing Russians and yesterday became the latest European government to offer hard cash to get its women to have more babies.

Saying plunging birthrates and a falling population are Russia’s “most acute problem,” President Vladimir Putin devoted much of his annual state-of-the-nation speech to proposals to stem the country’s mounting demographic crisis.

“We have raised this question many times but in fact have done little,” Mr. Putin said, noting that Russia’s population has been falling by an annual average of 700,000 in recent years. “We need to reduce mortality, have an effective migration policy and increase the birthrate,” he said.

Lawmakers repeatedly interrupted Mr. Putin with applause as he outlined an ambitious and expensive program to reverse a 15-year decline in birthrates. Quoting Russian Nobel literature laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Mr. Putin said solving the demographic problem “is, in a broader sense, saving the people.”

As with countries across Europe, average fertility rates in Russia are far below the average 2.1 children per woman “replacement rate” needed to keep the population stable. For a massive country like Russia, a falling population could leave large parts of the country underpopulated and create a societywide financial crisis as the population ages.

A World Bank report projected that Russia’s population, which stood at 146 million in 2000, could fall to 100 million by 2050 if present trends continue.

“We have to encourage at least the birth of a second child,” Mr. Putin said.

Industrial countries across the globe have tried a range of strategies to counter falling birthrates since the 1980s. Family-incentive programs, so-called “baby bonuses,” have been tried in countries such as Canada, Australia and Poland.

France, with a package of “pro-natalist” programs ranging from tax breaks and baby bounties to large-family discounts on museum tickets and subway passes, has seen an increase in fertility since 1993. French women now on average bear 1.9 children during their lifetime, second only to Ireland in the European Union.

Germany also faces an acute problem, where the number of children born in 2005 was the lowest since the end of World War II. Despite new tax incentives and generous paternity-leave programs, the German birthrate of 8.5 births per 1,000 inhabitants last year was believed to be the lowest on the Continent.

Carl Haub, a demographer with the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, said many complex factors — from cultural values to workplace attitudes to patriotism — will affect whether Western societies can reverse the unprecedented fertility decline.

Mr. Putin’s cash-based incentives “could have an impact, but nobody expects one simple solution can solve by itself the long-term problem,” Mr. Haub said.

The Russian leader’s 10-year proposal includes increasing the monthly payment for families having a second child to up to $110; providing mothers with 40 percent of their work salary for 18 months if they take time off to have a baby; bigger subsidies for child care and higher payments for those who adopt Russian babies; and a direct payment to mothers who have a second child of more than $9,000 to be used for mortgage payments, the child’s education or the mother’s own pension.

Mr. Putin acknowledged his program would require “huge amounts of money.”

But “the problem of our low birthrate cannot be changed without changing the attitude of the whole society to the family and its values,” he added.

• Michael Mainville contributed to this report from Moscow.

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