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Russia: In One Region, A Special Day For Family Planning

Russia has lost 6.5 million people in the past 14 years (ITAR-TASS) MOSCOW, September 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian government has taken numerous steps in recent years to counter the country's demographic crisis.

In central Ulyannovsk Oblast, authorities have adopted a particularly novel approach: encouraging women of child-bearing age and their partners to stay at home on September 12 to procreate.

The initiative comes from the region's governor, Sergei Morozov, who is desperate to boost his region's flagging population.

Morozov told RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service that in Soviet times, the region boasted 1.5 million inhabitants; today they are down to 1.3 million, and the population is declining by some 12,000 people every year.

"Family Communion Day," as September 12 is officially being called, falls exactly nine months before the nationwide June 12 holiday, the Day of National Unity. Women in the Ulyanovsk region who give birth on that day are being offered prizes, including cars, refrigerators, and cash prizes of up to 250,000 rubles ($10,000).

Looming Crisis

Experts have warned that Russia faces a population crisis over the coming years, because not enough children are being born and mortality rates are high.

Valery Yelizarov, the director of the Center for the Study of Population Problems at Moscow State University, says Russia's population has fallen from 148.5 million in 1993, to 142 million today.

In fact, he says, the population decline is even worse than it looks.

"If you compare births with deaths during that period, the deaths outnumber the births by almost 12 million," Yelizarov says. Although the numbers are compensated in part by immigration, with more than 5 million immigrants entering the country during that period, the population has fallen by 6.5 million people.

Yelizarov blames the steady population decline on high mortality rates, poor healthcare, and the lack of financial means for most families to have more than one child.

Quick Fix?

Government officials have said an improved healthcare system and better financial incentives for women who have two or more children mean the population will level out in less than two decades. Yelizarov, however, is less hopeful.

Ulyanovsk's governor says 28 babies were born on June 12, 2006. This year, the figure rose to 78.

"I don't share the same grounds for optimism as some in the government, who say that over the course of the next 15 years, the population will stabilize," he says. "A very serious problem awaits us in 2010 and 2011, when the number of women of child-bearing age will start to fall."

Another catalyst, he says, is that the population is aging and the shift in balance between those who work and those who are too old to work will have a serious effect on the country's economic growth.

But in Ulyanovsk, some residents were looking forward to Wednesday's unofficial holiday.

Marat is a student, who recently got married. He says he is keen for his wife to have a baby on June 12.

"A lot of people die in our country, and very few babies are born," he says. "I wouldn't have a baby because of gifts or money, but because we need children. A patriot cannot be born in one day; we should teach our children and love them."

Elvira, who got married earlier this year, was less sure that a special state-sanctioned day made the notion of procreation more appealing.

"No, I don't need that. I will have a baby when I am ready," she said. "I will have a baby when God wishes it. I don't want to have a baby for money or gifts, I should be ready for him or her myself."

Bearing Fruit

Morozov, the region's governor, said the initiative, which began three years ago, has already proved fruitful. On June 12, 2006, 28 babies were born in the region's hospitals, he told RFE/RL. This year, the figure rose to 78.

But Yelizarov says Family Communion Day is little more than a ruse.

"I think most people will have enough of a sense of humor not to take this too seriously," he said. "You could call this bureaucratic idiocy; you could call it a sincere attempt to involve people in resolving the population problem. But expecting this to have any real effect on the country's demographics would be foolish."

He says far more serious measures need to be taken to stop Russia becoming the most sparsely populated nation on earth in little more than a decade.

Russian State's Family Planning

Russian State's Family Planning

Couples in Russia's central Ulyanovsk Oblast were encouraged to take September 12 off work in order to procreate, on a special day labeled "Family Communion Day." Muscovites at the time spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Chloe Arnold about the wisdom of state interference in what is often a private family matter.

Nina Fedorushkina, 53, teacher:
"I know this is a special kind of scheme, but I'm completely against any sort of scheme, because I think people should only do things according to their personal convictions. If two parents have decided that they should have a child, then that is a decision for the husband and wife alone, and shouldn't depend on some sort of gimmick. What's more, I think it's humiliating that if they do this, they will receive a refrigerator or a washing machine.

"I think simply that better living conditions need to be created for people, so that they are able to buy themselves a flat. A lot of people simply don't have the means to provide a decent life for their children. Although they say that education is free, parents in fact need to have quite a bit of money to send their children to school. State handouts are so meager that it would really be very foolish to count on the government."

Maria Leonova, headmistress of a nursery school:
"Family Communion Day, as far as I understand, is a day put aside for trying to have children. Well, as they taught us at university, I'll talk about the advantages first, and then the disadvantages. The good thing is that they have noticed that there is a [population] problem and that they are doing what they can to resolve it. But the bad side is this: I think in essence it's a stupid and discriminatory gimmick.

"I think [the state] should work more seriously on this issue. We know that there are countries in Europe where, for example, there are flexible tax rates for families with more than one child. For example, if you have two children, you pay less tax; if you have three, you don't pay any tax at all. And you get benefits, you get help with paying for school, for nursery. We need to work really very hard on rethinking our own critical situation, and I think this will be a very long process."

Aleksandr, 27, driver:
"In general, people will have different opinions about this, but my opinion is that it is not a very good thing [to have children] in exchange for money. I think that having children shouldn't depend on receiving money. It should be a serious agreement between two people who love each other. Money in this instance is not the most important thing."

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