Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Demography Plan Called Half-Baked

MTChildren playing with their grandmother near Neskuchny Sad. The president's plan to make the nation more child-friendly may be facing high hurdles.
Other than offering to throw cash at mothers, President Vladimir Putin gave few clues in his state-of-the-nation address about how he expects to pull the country out of its demographic crisis.

That is because there is no silver bullet and little chance that the population slide will be reversed, demographers in Russia and abroad said.

Putin said in his address on May 10 that the key ways to stop the slide would be to reduce the high mortality rate, fashion a reasonable migration policy and raise the birthrate.

"The president was right in identifying the order of factors contributing to the gloomy demographic picture, placing birthrate third after the low mortality rate and poor migration policy," said Tatyana Maleva, director of the Independent Institute for Social Policy. "But look at what he offered: very flashy measures that catch the public eye."

Murray Feshbach, who tracks Russian demographic issues at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, concurred, saying Putin spoke about only one component of a complex problem.

"It's about time" that Putin addressed the issue, he said, "though there are many other sides to it that have to be addressed as well."

Russia's population has been sliding by about 700,000 people per year for the past decade, from 150 million in the early 1990s to about 142 million today. Demographers have long been warning that if the government continued to ignore the problem, the population could drop to below 100 million by 2050, leaving the world's largest country with an ever-shrinking workforce and economy, as well as an incapable army.

Putin's proposed cash payments to mothers of 1,500 rubles ($53) for the first child and 3,000 rubles for the second will boost the birthrate -- but only for a short time, Feshbach and Maleva said.

"By promising cash incentives, the president is addressing the most underprivileged segment of the population. But the promise of payments will not convince educated women to give birth," Maleva said.

Mothers now get 700 rubles for their first child.

The country has grappled with low birthrates for two decades, and as a result, the most fertile group of women -- those aged between 20 and 29 -- now numbers only 12 million and is expected to fall to 8 million in a few years. Such a low number will not be able to give birth to the next generation of Russians, Feshbach said.

State payments could even have a negative effect, prompting women to leave the labor force and rely on the government, demographers said.

The introduction of cash incentives for mothers in some countries with similar demographic trends -- including Sweden and France -- has helped to stabilize fertility rates to a certain extent, noted Francois Farah, population and development branch head at the New York-based United Nations Population Fund. However, France and Sweden are also amending their laws to introduce flexible forms of employment such as partial or distance employment to mothers.

Although Putin in his speech urged parliament to keep the cash allowances in mind while drafting next year's budget, he made no mention of the Labor Code. "At the moment, our labor legislation and our employers consider flexible forms of employment to be something marginal and hostile," Maleva said.

One senior State Duma deputy also believes that cash will not be enough and is calling for pregnancy to be made fashionable. "If television were to show the beautiful bellies of those who are pregnant, then there would be a result," said Yekaterina Lakhova, chairwoman of the State Duma's Committee on Women, Family and Children's Issues, Izvestia reported Wednesday.

More disturbing than the low birthrate is the sky-high death rate -- an issue that Putin omitted from his speech, the demographers said.

But Putin may believe that the state is already tackling that problem under a major health care project, said Valery Yelizarov, head of the Population Center at Moscow State University.

The project is one of the four so-called national projects unveiled by Putin last year, and billions of rubles are to be spent over the next two years to purchase new medical equipment and increase doctors' and nurses' salaries, among other things.

Overall, the population is unhealthy, and men have an average life expectancy of just 59 years. Many premature deaths are the result of alcohol, accidents and cardio-vascular problems.

On top of that, Russia has "a growing reservoir" of people recently infected with tuberculosis, HIV and Hepatitis C that will dramatically affect the national health picture in a decade or so, Feshbach said.

Russia could promote a population swell by attracting 600,000 to 900,000 migrants per year, but the state only wants educated, Russian-speaking migrants who could quickly adapt to life in Russia, Maleva said.

Also, she said, "migrants from other former Soviet republics are no longer lining up for Russian citizenship, and the migration market has been divided by other countries experiencing the same deficit in labor force."

Putin gave no insight into how the government might revise its migration policy, and public sentiment is largely anti-migrant.

"Until we realize that we need to accept all those willing to come to work and live in Russia, we will have to think about how to balance our labor resources," Yelizarov, from Moscow State University, said.