MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn't formally said he will stand for reelection in March, but his campaign appeared well under way this week as he unveiled a new monthly payout for firstborn babies.
Addressing a Kremlin council tasked with implementing a five-year National Children's Strategy, Putin said Russia's demographic situation is again worsening and ordered measures to prevent population decline in the coming decade.
Putin said Russia would start paying the parents of firstborn children an allowance of around $180 a month for 18 months, starting on January 1, a measure that will cost an estimated 145 billion rubles over three years. He also ordered that state allowances he introduced for mothers who have more than two children be extended until 2021.
Political analysts cast the initiative as an election campaign move that will play well with the population, although demographers are skeptical the payouts will seriously alleviate Russia's long-term demographic headache, which is driven by underlying historical issues.
Anatoly Vishnyevsky, director of the Institute for Demography at the Higher School of Economics, speculated that the measures may slightly increase the birthrate for a period among existing mothers but will not reverse the looming demographic slump.
'Births Will Fall Regardless'
He said it is driven by a "sharp" fall in the number of women of child-bearing age. "The fact is that it is not possible to compensate for the fall of [mothers] with a rise in the birthrate," Vishnevsky told RFE/RL. "The number of births will fall regardless."
He cast the fall in the number of potential mothers as an "echo" of the devastation and loss of life wrought by World War II as well as a knock-on effect of the plunge in birthrates in the 1990s that accompanied greater economic hardship and a collapse in welfare.
"This fall is going to continue for perhaps about 15 years," Vishnevsky said. "Correspondingly, if there are fewer mothers, there will be fewer children. It is not possible to raise the birthrate enough to compensate for this fall."
Figures from the Russian statistics agency cited by Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper show birthrates have been falling since 2016. Three percent fewer children were born in 2016 than in 2015; the first nine months of 2017 were down 11.5 percent compared to 2016.
The last time Putin was gearing up for election, in March 2012 ahead of his third term, he wrote an article in which he called the demographic crisis a threat to the country's existence. He warned that Russia's population of around 143 million could fall to 107 million by 2050 and as a solution proposed special allowances for mothers, as well as enticing Russians living abroad to return to Russia and attracting talented young foreigners to immigrate.
As he spoke on November 28 at the presidential council to discuss the National Children's Strategy, Putin said the state program for maternity allowances had played a decisive role in helping birthrates "start to grow" -- despites recent statistics to the contrary -- and that two-children families have become a "steady trend."
Vishnyevsky said the only way to maintain the population size given the falling number of mothers would be to attract foreign migrants. The latter is a politically sensitive issue that Putin did not mention this week.
Valery Solovey, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, nonetheless cast Putin's initiative as a move that will prove popular ahead of the March presidential election.
Putin hasn't announced he is running, but he is widely expected to do so and to win.
"In propaganda terms Putin has already won the campaign. With one strong move," Solovey wrote on Twitter. "I am referring to his demographic initiative. You can argue to what extent it can be carried out and what consequences it will have, but the game has already been made. No counter campaign, no corruption exposés can stop the effect."
TV personality Ksenia Sobchak has vowed to run for president and has cast herself as the best hope of Putin's critics if officials follow through on indications that anti-corruption activist and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny will be barred from the race due to a criminal conviction that he and supporters say was politically motivated.