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Russians say they'll have more babies when economy improves

REUTOV, Russia—Anna Banova would seem to be just the kind of person whom Russian President Vladimir Putin had in mind when he called on Parliament to provide greater incentives for couples to have more children and reverse the country's rapid population decline.

At 23, Banova is already the mother of an infant son, and she says she'd like to have another child, something that under Putin's plan would earn her husband and her a onetime payment of $9,300 plus a monthly stipend of $110.

Banova says that it isn't enough to persuade her to go ahead.

"We are eager to have another baby, but we have an unstable situation," she said one day recently as she joined dozens of other parents pushing strollers in flower-filled Victory Square, with its Orthodox Church chapel and statues of slain war heroes. "Putin's program means something to us, but not too much. We mainly count on ourselves. In the provinces, it's worse."

Conversations with young parents in this suburban Moscow town of 70,000 indicate that without broad improvements in the economy Putin has little likelihood of spurring a baby boom in this former superpower, where 15 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Russia's pliant Parliament is all but certain to approve the parenthood incentives that Putin called for May 10 in his state of the nation address: the $9,300 second-baby bonus payable when the child turns 3, bigger monthly payments to parents for the first 18 months after a child's birth and better maternity-leave benefits, including paying new mothers 40 percent of their salaries for 18 months. Putin also called for higher subsidies for day care, more health benefits and greater incentives to parents who adopt orphans and homeless children.

In a nation where one-child households are common, "we have to encourage the birth of at least a second child," said Putin, who has two daughters with his wife, Lyudmila.

But parents here don't think those incentives will boost Russia's birthrate enough to end an annual population decline of 700,000, a rate that's likely to see the nation's population dip to 110 million by 2050 from its current 143 million.

The incentives are too little—and the Kremlin's track record too unreliable—to influence their decisions.

Bigger issues—the ability to find well-paying jobs, affordable housing and decent medical care and schools—matter more. And by those measures, they said, Russia has a long way to go before many families will feel economically secure enough to have more children.

"The problem is deeper," Banova said. "If the economy is developed better and living standards become higher, the birthrate will increase. These are connected issues."

Like many other Russians who flock to the Moscow area in search of better opportunities, Banova and her husband recently left a provincial capital. While his monthly salary of $1,100 is good by Russian standards, half goes to rent.

The state already gives a $300 bonus to new mothers, but Banova notes that that's not enough even to supply diapers for very long.

An estimated 22 million Russians, 15 percent of the nation, live below the poverty line of $90 to $150 monthly. And many economic experts say that most Russians, especially outside Moscow, live poorly.

According to the Center for Living Standards, part of the Ministry of Health and Social Development, only 10 percent of the nation has reached middle-class or higher status, defined as owning a home and having a monthly salary of at least $550, according to a recent article in the Russian weekly newspaper Arguments and Time.

The Echo of Moscow radio station took a poll after Putin's speech that found 80 percent of people think the president's proposal won't work.

Many argue that the nation's birthrate—10.2 per 1,000 people in 2005—is comparable with that of Western nations and isn't the problem. (America's birthrate was 14.1 per 1,000 in 2005.)

They argue that the government's emphasis should be on improving conditions so that Russians live longer. Men here die at an average age of 59; life expectancy for women is 72.

They also say that corruption and red tape are disincentives to larger families.

Elena Yuzikova, 24, the mother of a baby girl, said Russian bureaucracy was so stultifying that she didn't bother to apply for grants. "It requires too many papers," she said. She said she'd probably have a second child, but only because her husband's income was good.

Putin's offer isn't even enough to offset the unofficial fees—bribes, by another term—that some parents say they must pay to get the medical care they want or their children into the day-care centers of their choice.

"I had to pay $1,500 for prenatal medical care," Yuzikova said. "Officially, it was free."

Roman Tarusov, 27, the father of a baby boy, said Putin's incentives were "a small amount to pay for future education and living expenses."

All the same, he and his wife plan to have a second child. His housing costs are low and he gets by as a taxi driver. "Despite everything, people still have babies," he said.

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(Bonner reports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RUSSIA-BIRTHRATE

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