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BELGRADE -- A state campaign aimed at boosting Serbia’s low birthrate is coming under sharp criticism in Belgrade, including condemnation from the country’s female prime minister and a deputy prime minister in charge of the government’s gender-equality coordination body.

The campaign relies on slogans to encourage women to have children.

But it has been widely mocked on social media since the winners of a countrywide slogan contest were announced on February 14.

Deputy Prime Minister Zorana Mihajlovic said she thinks the winning slogans -- "Give birth, don't delay!" and "Love and babies are what we need first!" -- are offensive to women.

Mihajlovic also is angry about a slogan that tied for second place in the competition, “Enough words! Let babies’ cries be heard.”

“I have warned several times that no one has the right to either order women to give birth or to blame them over the low birthrate by treating them as some kind of breeding machines,” Mihajlovic said in a statement.

She said the slogans publicly embarrass women and misrepresent the role of women in Serbia and in population policies.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic (file photo)
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic (file photo)

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic weighed in by telling reporters on February 14 that “slogans cannot increase the birthrate.”

She said what is needed instead is “better assistance to pregnant women and new mothers.”

Brnabic said the state should focus on making more timely social assistance payments to pregnant women and by eliminating the bureaucratic red tape they face.

But Minister Without Portfolio Slavica Djukic-Dejanovic, a member of the state commission that chose the winning slogans, is defending those decisions.

She told the Belgrade bureau of the N1 cable television news channel she doesn’t think the slogans are offensive to women.

Djukic-Dejanovic, who is in charge of state population policies, also disagreed with critics who say the slogan “Give birth, don’t delay” has a patronizing and commanding tone.

Serbia's aging population of 7 million people has been falling by thousands of people every year since the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia in 1992.

The population has declined by more than 20,000 people a year since 1998 and an average of about 36,000 people per year since 2005.

In 2016, 100,834 people died while just 64,734 were born.

Meanwhile, the "brain drain" of young, educated Serbs leaving to study or work in more prosperous countries also is taking its toll.

The leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irinej, met with President Aleksandar Vucic in October to discuss their concerns about the country’s "very low birthrate."

The Serbian Orthodox Church opposes abortion and argues that it should be made illegal.

Serbian Orthodox Bishop Amfilojije has publicly accused Serbian women of becoming mass killers of unborn children -- claiming that “they kill more children in their wombs in one year than Mussolini, Hitler,” Josip Broz Tito, and Kosovar Albanians together.

But Ljubica Krstic, an editor with the Serbian website Noizz.rs, said authorities are “playing a dirty game by shifting responsibility for the low birthrate to women.”

She said the real causes of the problem are Serbia’s poor living standards, its high unemployment rate, and “inefficient government.”

Nevena Subotic, the director of the Belgrade-based Promolineplus public relations agency, said the slogan campaign highlights two important points about Serbia’s declining population.

“The state recognized that a negative birthrate is our main problem,” Subotic said. “The second point is the state does not have any idea about how to deal with it.”

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague with reporting by Ljudmila Cvetkovic and Branka Trivic in Belgrade
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