Putin campaigned on a range of 'pro-natal' policies designed to increase birth rates, including mortgage support and cash payments for first-time mothers.
UNITED NATIONS — Russian President Vladimir Putin used his fourth inaugural address on Monday to tout the country’s military might and assertiveness on the global stage, but he noted Russia’s future increasingly hinges on a large and able-bodied population.
“We need breakthroughs in all areas of life,” Putin said, alluding broadly to “cutting-edge advances” and “large-scale” infrastructure upgrades.
“We will pay special attention to supporting the traditional family values, motherhood and childhood so that more and more wanted and healthy babies are born in Russia who go on to become smart and talented people,” he promised.
Putin will need all the help he can get.
Russia’s population of just under 150 million people has held roughly steady since the mid-1980’s, and 2017 figures show the country is falling short of population replacement levels, meaning more Russians are dying each year than being born. An exodus of skilled and well-educated Russians abroad doesn’t help either.
“There’s going to be a great deal of pressure downward on the total number of births in Russia for the next number of years,” demographer and political economist Nicolas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute explained.
That trend owes itself to a slump in births in the 1990’s following the end of the Soviet Union — meaning there are fewer prospective mothers in Russia now. The “increasing grayness” of Russia’s population also will steadily increase death totals.
As Putin called on Russia’s young generation to unlock “economic and technological breakthrough[s],” state TV cameras repeatedly cut away to show the smiling faces of well-dressed millennials gathered for the inauguration at Moscow’s glistening Grand Kremlin Palace.
“I look forward to novel ideas and approaches, to the audacity of young people and their ability to lead the change,” he said.
But Putin’s pro-natal policies — which include mortgage support and cash subsidies for new mothers — are unlikely to deliver the “breakthroughs in research and technology” he hopes for, absent additional investments in health and education, both of which have taken a backseat to increased military expenditures.
“Pro-natal policies are completely regressive,” Eberstadt said, noting that social policies are subject to the law of unintended consequences. “Any given ‘baby bonus’ is going to matter a lot more to people whose income levels and income prospects are lower, which presumably means that they’re more enticing to people with less education.”
Eberstadt said Putin’s “mercantilist” population policies are “peculiarly narrow” and an odd match with the Russian leader’s professed focus on improving economic dynamism and competitiveness.
“It’s kind of like he’s interested in the size of the ranch without improving the health of the herd,” he explained. “That’s not a way to maximize human prospects, or even human potential that could be translated into national power.”