MOSCOW. (Alexander Yurov, RIA Novosti political commentator) -

Russian birth rates are veiled in mystery—not that the adult population is ignorant of the facts of life. What I mean is that it baffles demographers just why Russian women have recently started having more children than before, and experts are at a loss as to how to send birth rates further up.
It is a long established fact that Russians have few children and the population is dwindling disastrously.

Government statistics prove, however, that Russian birth rates are on a par with German or Italian, with the same 1.3-1.5 babies per woman of reproductive age. More than that, the annual number of births has skyrocketed to more than 800,000 from the 380,000 of the mid-1990s. Statistics disprove another public misconception, of large Muslim families. As it really is, there are slightly less than two births per Arab woman—a rate that has been steady for several years now in Arab countries. Be all that as it may, the Russian population is shrinking, which means the problem is rooted not only in birth rates.

Experts have blamed the high abortion rate, but that is not the heart of the matter, says Tatyana Maleyeva, Independent Social Political Studies Institute director. High death and emigration rates are the most important factors responsible for the population decline. Low birth rates come only third on the list. Russia is sliding to simple population reproduction, she warns. The situation now depends on what the authorities will do about it. Material incentives alone cannot remedy the situation.

The choices people make in the course of their lives are conditional on a wide range of factors, which vary from group to group. Some people cannot afford to have a baby, while others need a nanny, a good kindergarten and reliable partners to have a big family. Working mothers need longer maternity leaves and flexible work schedules. In short, the Russian demographic situation now depends on how far the authorities are prepared to go with social and demographic incentives.

The authorities have started tackling the problem by offering material incentives. A federal program to be launched at the start of next year promises every mother of two or more children a 250,000 ruble (roughly $10,000) grant per baby.

There are many provisos to the benefit: the mother cannot have access to the account before the child reaches the age of three, and the money can be spent only on the child’s education or better housing. The mother can also add the sum to her future pension. Monthly maternity grants, paid before the baby reaches 18 months, have been increased to 3,000 rubles as of January 1.

The government will pay 20 percent of kindergarten fees for one-child families, 50 percent for two children, and 70 percent for three. For people living in the less prosperous parts of Russia 3,000 rubles is a substantial amount. It is an average monthly pension all over the country.

Many prominent Russian demographic experts, however, do not think women can be bribed into having more kids. They do not find government measures adequate, and some think they are downright destructive. What they can lead to is that some women will have babies just to get the grants, and abandoned children will be flocking to orphanages in a year or two, warns Yevgeny Gontmakher, Social Studies and Innovations Center research supervisor, and recent head of the federal government Social Development Department.

Anatoly Vishnevsky, Demography and Human Ecology Center director, shares his skepticism about material incentives, and proposes many others. All the preliminary research was done in Russia as early as the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the government did nothing to follow up on the results, and is continuing to ignore the experts.

At a seminar on increasing the birth rates in Russia, Yevgeny Yasin, Higher School of Economics research director, pointed out that demographic problems were taking a critical turn. On the other hand, he remarked, the president has called for a baby boom, and people are extremely receptive to his ideas. Demography overnight became a burning issue of interest to all. It was previously in oblivion—as if it was no one’s concern.

Be that as it may, the Russian government proceeds from an economic practice tested in many countries. For example, the European Union demanded that Poland increased all welfare benefits as a membership proviso. Poles resisted as long as they could—they knew higher social security payments would send unemployment up.

They were right in their apprehensions: 20 percent of the working age population have no jobs now—as against 10 percent in present-day Russia. However, Poland also benefited from larger welfare benefits as they increased the workforce cost. The new government program in Russia is expected to lead to similar results.

Clearly, only sustainable families are going to have two or more children, program or no program, and no grants will influence their decision. The crucial factors are psychology and relationships between people. All that gives us sufficient grounds to expect maternity grants to reward mothers for their previous determination to have babies irrespective of incentives. –0-