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The total fertility rate in what is now the Russian Federation has been below replacement level during much of the last 40 years. By the late 1990s it was barely above 1.2 children per woman. There may have been some recovery since: the United Nations estimate for 2000–05 is 1.33. Other reports set the 2004 rate at 1.17. Countries elsewhere in Europe have fertility levels that are equally low or even lower, but the Russian demographic predicament is aggravated by mortality that is exceptionally high by modern standards. Thus, despite large-scale net immigration (mostly due to return of ethnic Russians from other republics of the former Soviet Union), the population in the last decade-and-a-half has been shrinking: of late by some 700,000 persons per year. The United Nations medium estimate assumes a steady recovery of the total fertility rate to reach a level of 1.85 by 2050 and a considerable improvement in survival rates during that period—notably an increase in male life expectancy at birth of more than ten years. It also assumes further modest net immigration at a steady rate, amounting to a total of somewhat over 2 million by midcentury. Under these stipulations the projected population of Russia in 2050 would be 112 million—some 31 million below its present size. By that time, 23 percent of the population would be aged 65 and older.

The government's concern with the demographic situation of the country and its intent to improve it have been manifest in various official statements, notably in the annual State of the Nation Address given by the president to the Federal Assembly (or State Duma). Formerly a subordinate theme (see the Documents item in the June 2005 issue of PDR), the issue constituted the centerpiece of the 2006 Address, delivered on 10 May in the Kremlin by President Vladimir Putin. Policies regarding health and mortality were given short shrift in the speech—road safety, bootleg alcohol, and cardiovascular diseases being singled out as areas of special concern. The president's remarks on immigration are of greater interest: immigration of skilled persons is to be encouraged. They must be educated and law-abiding and must treat the country's culture and national tradition with respect. The main focus of the address, however, was on the birth rate and policies to be introduced to raise it. (The need for an “effective demographic policy” as seen from the Kremlin was of course also voiced in the later stages of the Soviet era. See, for example, the excerpts from the addresses delivered by then Party Chairman Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Nikolai Tikhonov to the 26th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1981 that appear in the Documents item in the June 1981 issue of PDR.) In detail and specificity, and also in terms of the economic cost of the measures envisaged, Putin's speech is without parallel in addressing population policy matters by a head of state in Europe. The demo graphically relevant portion of the address is reproduced below in the English translation provided by the website of the president's office «http://www.kremlin.ru/eng».

Calling Russia's demographic situation “the most acute problem facing our country today,” Putin terms its causes as “well known,” but lists only economic factors, presumably because these, at least in principle, lend themselves to remedial measures that the Russian government, its coffers now swollen with petrodollars, should be able to provide. His starkly economic interpretation of the problem of low fertility (in Russia apparently taking the form of convergence to a single-child pattern) may be overly optimistic. Causes of electing to have only one child may lie deeper than those Putin names: low incomes, inadequate housing, poor-quality health care and inadequate educational opportunities for children, and even lack of food. Putin's proposed policies to attack these problems in part consist of a major upgrading of existing child care benefits: to 1,500 roubles a month for the first child and 3,000 roubles for the second. The latter amount is roughly equivalent to US$113, a significant sum given Russian income levels. Maternity leave for 18 months at 40 percent of the mother's previous wage (subject to a ceiling) and compensation for the cost of preschool childcare round out the basic package proposed. Benefits are to be parity-dependent, highlighting the pronatalist intent of the measures. Thus the child benefit for the second child is to be twice as large as for the first, and payment for preschool childcare is to cover 20 percent of parental costs for the first, 50 percent for the second, and 70 percent for the third child. Putin mentions “young families” as recipients, but the payments are clearly directed to mothers. (Even the usually obligatory reference to western European–style paternity leave is missing.) The most innovative element of the proposed measures, however, is support for women who have a second birth. The state should provide such women (not the child, as called for in some European precedents) “with an initial maternity capital that will raise their social status and help resolve future problems.” Citing expert opinion, Putin says that such support “should total at least 250,000 roubles [about $9,300] indexed to annual inflation.” Evidently assuming, optimistically, that there will be many takers, Putin says that carrying out all these plans will require not only a lot of work but also “an immense amount of money.” The measures are to be launched starting January 2007.