Russia's Putin seeks to stimulate birth rate

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Russian child plays in park with his mother in Moscow (9 January)Image source, Getty Images
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Russia's president spoke of a "very difficult demographic period"

President Vladimir Putin has announced a series of plans to increase the number of children being born in Russia from an average birth rate of under 1.5 per woman to 1.7 within four years.

Last year he promised tax breaks for bigger families.

On Wednesday he told parliament "the birth rate is falling again" before pledging state funding for new mothers.

"Maternity capital" has until now only been paid to families with at least two children.

Welfare benefits will also be paid for children aged three to seven in low-income families, and free school meals will be provided for the first four years of school.

Why birth rate is a problem beyond Russia

Several Eastern European states are struggling with a declining birth rate.

Only last week, Hungary's right-wing nationalist Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, announced plans for free fertility treatment to couples as well as possible income tax exemptions for mothers with three or more children.

Mothers with four children already have some tax breaks in Russia, a country that has a birth rate of 1.48. The EU average is 1.59 births per woman and several states including Spain, Italy, Greece and Malta are well below the Russian figure.

Russia's population has struggled to recover from a dramatic decline in the 1990s, to the point that Mr Putin said by 1999 the birth rate had fallen to 1.16, lower even than during World War Two.

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Ordinary Russians have taken to appealing directly to Putin to solve their problems

It has picked up in recent years and, although the population is currently 147 million, the Russian leader spoke of a "very difficult demographic period" in which the children of the 1990s were now themselves giving birth.

"Russia's fate and its historical outlook depends on how many of us there are," he said.

Will it work?

The one-off maternity capital payment was first introduced in Russia in 2007 as part of a 10-year programme and succeeded in increasing the number of families with two children, says demography expert Prof Evgeny Yakovlev.

Image source, Getty Images
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It is not just in Russia that birth rates have been in decline in recent years

"But since 2017, the birth rate started to fall again. Families stopped giving birth even to first children. They were afraid of financial uncertainty," he told BBC Russian.

The payment is currently worth £5,800 ($7,600; €6,800), but Russian demographer Anatoly Vishnevsky believes extending it to all families will have little effect because the pattern of declining birth rates is the same in every industrialised country.

"President Putin's whole idea that the birth rate can be corrected solely by money is invalid," he argues.

What else did Putin say?

This was Mr Putin's 16th annual address to Russia's parliament, the Duma, and Mr Putin used his speech to also tackle his own future.

His fourth presidential term comes to an end in 2024, and under the constitution he would have to stand down from the post.

While saying he wanted to maintain Russia's presidential system, Mr Putin proposed a referendum on changing the constitution to give parliament greater powers to appoint the prime minister.

Between his second and third terms, Mr Putin served for four years as prime minister before returning to the presidency in 2012, and in theory he could become prime minister again.

Even when he was prime minister, Mr Putin was widely seen as the power behind then President Dmitry Medvedev.