According to the Christian Science Monitor, the Russian Prime Minister is seeking re-election to the presidency (for a third term) and is setting out his policy platform. The fourth of his programmatic articles trying to convince Russians to vote for him in three weeks time (or else!) deals with his plans to reverse Russia’s population decline. This is a longstanding problem for Russia and one that Putin has had some success in dealing with:
“When he first came to power 12 years ago, Putin inherited a catastrophic population crisis. The number of Russians was shrinking by 0.5 percent each year…But a decade of relative political stability, higher living standards, and public health campaigns have boosted male life expectancy from a 2003 low of 58 years to 63 today, and raised fertility rates from about 1.2 children-per-woman in 2002 to 1.6 in 2011…according to the state statistics service Rosstat.
Despite these successes, the demographic outlook for Russia is still bleak (as we’ve mentioned before on this blog). According to Zhanna Zaynchkovskaya, an expert with the independent Centre for Migration Studies in Moscow, the recent uptick in birth rates is mainly the result of a demographic bulge of women born in the 1980s having children. This is a short term phenomenon, when the far fewer numbers of women born in the 1990s begin to have families (in about two years time) this uptick will decline again. As Putin writes:
“…if existing trends continue, Russia’s present population of about 143 million will plunge to about 107 million people by 2050 – a disaster for a country that occupies such a vast territory and contains around 40 percent of the world’s natural resources and an extraordinary population loss in peacetime.”
Instead, if his policies are adopted and the country manages “to formulate and implement an efficient, comprehensive policy for population saving” then Putin hopes that Russia’s population will increase to 154 million by 2050. So what set of policies is Putin advocating? He proposes a fresh assault on the endemic male alcoholism rates (surely a good aim, but one wonders how that will be achieved, through higher taxes and duties? More education?)
Furthermore, he is promising improved housing and educational prospects for all Russians and a “smart” immigration policy that will entice Russians living abroad to return to the motherland and attract educated and talented foreigners. However, as Putin acknowledges, past programs to get ethnic Russians to resettle in Russia:
“…have worked inefficiently… we need to revisit this issue and develop a more ambitious set of measures to support people who want to return to their historic homeland.”
This is easier said than done. An opinion poll from last year found that 22% of all adult Russians in Moscow would like to emigrate! This suggests that the factors pulling people to live in Russia are not that strong. Finally, Putin makes it clear that he wants to attract not just any immigrants, but Russian speakers who are willing to “embrace our culture and our values”. This is significantly narrowing the size of the pool of potential immigrants.
More concretely, he is promising to provide a special allowance for women who have more than two children – families with more than three children will receive housing priorities and a special allowance of 7,000 roubles (US$250) per child monthly. Furthermore, other state benefits would make it easier for working mothers to find day care, adjust their schedules to maternal demands and upgrade their professional qualifications. As Zaynchkovskaya says:
“Many families with three children are living in poverty and, while you can’t actually feed a child with 7,000 roubles a month, it’s better than nothing.”
However, according to Boris Denisov, a demographer at Moscow State University, while this policy may help those larger families already in existence, it will not encourage families to have more children:
“…the authorities’ wish to raise the birth rate is based on the idea that women and families want more children, but lack enough money and other resources to do so. So, the reasoning goes, if they are given apartments and more money, they will have more babies. There is no evidence to support this idea. Many countries in the world have higher living standards than Russia but the same or even lower fertility rates.” (See my comments along similar lines about Canada’s birth rates from last week.)
So the experts are hardly jumping up and down in excitement about these proposals. As Vishnevsky argues, “[t]his article of Putin’s should be read as a pre-election statement and nothing more.” However, there is no question that large numbers in Russia are desperate to increase Mother Russia’s fertility. Perhaps it is still not yet time to give up the praying.