20 years under Putin: a timeline

Along with a series of sweeping constitutional reforms, Vladimir Putin also announced a host of changes to socio-economic programs during the State of the Nation address on January 15. In addition to indexing pensions and ensuring that the minimum wage remains above subsistence levels, the government prolonged and enlarged the maternity capital program.

 

Vladimir Putin has repeatedly spoken about the need to stimulate the birth rate in Russia. Photo: kremlin.ru.

 

Since the early 1990s, Russia’s population has declined by almost three percent, mirroring similar trends in other post-Soviet states outside of Central Asia. The United Nations “medium variant” population forecast, released in August of 2019, predicts that Russia’s population will fall to 135.8 million by 2050 and to 126.1 million by 2100. The “pessimistic” version of the same forecast suggests the decline may be much more severe, with the population shrinking in half to 83.7 million by 2100.

Populations are formed as a result of three processes: death, birth, and migration. Russia seems to be losing on all fronts. Its mortality rate, though declining in recent decades, remains relatively high. The country’s total fertility rate, currently 1.76 births per woman during her lifetime, has been increasing slowly since its drastic decline in the 1990s, but remains below the population replacement rate of 2.1. Immigration—especially from Central Asian countries—had previously boosted Russia’s population, but by 2018 it hit a record low, as potential migrants reoriented toward “more attractive” countries.

Arresting the demographic decline has become a pressing issue for the Kremlin. In fact, “ensuring sustainable natural population growth” was the first goal listed in the executive order on National Goals and Strategic Objectives of the Russian Federation through to 2024, signed by Vladimir Putin in May 2018. Putin has repeatedly spoken about the need to stimulate the birth rate, while Western foreign policy analysts have speculated that Russia’s shrinking population might make the country a less serious adversary for America in the future. However, as Russian military analyst Michael Kofman points out, the size of a country’s population has little to do with the dynamics of modern great power competition. Domestic and international news about a rise in mortality in some Russia regions, surveys documenting a desire among young Russians to leave the country, and profiles of dying industrial cities in Russia’s north have all further highlighted the problem.

 

In an interview with Novaya Gazeta, a prominent Russian demographer Anatoly Vishnevsky criticized the maternal capital program. “Subsidies cannot impact the birth rate in any way. First, a low birth rate is registered not only among the poor, but also among those financially able to raise another child. Second, similar trends are observed in all developed countries. In some of them, the birth rate is higher than in Russia (e.g. France), but there are other wealthy countries where it is lower (e.g. Germany). The notion that the number of children and a family’s economic capacity are directly linked is wrong. Besides, the birth rate coefficient of 1.7 [the target indicated in the president’s May Decrees] is quite low. This number is insufficient to achieve even population replacement in Russia.” “There is no hope to resolve the birth rate problem in Russia,” he said.

 

One of the ways that the government has decided to address Russia’s demographic decline is by investing in a program of financial incentives to boost the birth rate—the so called “maternity capital.” When it was introduced in 2006, maternity capital was framed by Putin as a way of “resolving the most vital problem the country faces... the demographic problem, or, as Solzhenitsyn put it, the issue of ‘conserving the people.’”

The program envisioned subsidies that come in the form of a certificate for women who give birth to a second (or subsequent) child, starting January 1, 2007. Originally, the certificate was for 250,000 rubles (equivalent to $6,600 that year) to be spent only on purposes predefined by the policymakers (e.g. housing, children’s education, etc.). This amount had been indexed annually to inflation, reaching 453,026 rubles in 2015 (equivalent to $4,500 that year—a decrease in USD due to a significant weakening of the ruble), at which point indexation was suspended. According to official data, the government’s spending on the maternity capital program has been since in decline—from 365.3 billion rubles ($4.8 billion) in 2016 to 311.8 billion ($5.2 billion) in 2017 to 302.3 billion ($4.4 billion) in 2018 (2019 data is unavailable as yet).

Addressing the Federal Assembly on January 15, 2020, Vladimir Putin put forward not only a host of far-reaching constitutional reforms, but also an array of socio-economic programs, including an expansion of the maternity capital. The program was slated for extension at least to 2026, with a subsidy per family increasing to 616,617 rubles ($9,800), and first-born children becoming also eligible. Putin also claimed that the amount will be indexed annually. Already this year, the government has said it is ready to allocate 436 billion rubles ($6.9 billion) for the maternity capital program to meet these targets, but at this point officials were unable to estimate the number of people they expect to cover with these subsidies. 

Since its inception, over eight million Russian families have received maternity capital, but research suggests that the program is unlikely to have a direct impact on the fertility rate. Measuring the program’s implementation is complicated, among other confounding factors, by competing family policies. Still, a 2010 study found that maternal capital could have influenced the timing of the second child, but hardly contributed to the increase in the number of children—an uptake of only 0.8 percent. A different study in 2014 indicated that, at best, the effect of the program in the long-run is modest, accounting for an increase of 0.15 children per woman.

The usefulness of the program is marred by bureaucratic obstacles and a lack of confidence in the Russian government. According to another 2014 study, “the maternity capital program was not perceived by parents as a measure that eased the burden of bringing up children or as a stimulus to give birth to more.” In addition, surveyed parents pointed out that maternity capital alone cannot secure better housing, and that instability in the education system specifically and the economy at large forces them to spend the money quickly on pre-school, rather than investing it in the long term.

In his January 15 speech, Putin repeatedly boasted that his new social policies exceeded those of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the maternity capital program builds on the Soviet tradition of pro-natalist policies that emphasized a woman’s role as a mother and placed responsibility for child care squarely on her shoulders. Rather than trying to build a socio-economic infrastructure that would reconcile work and family, maternity capital aims to compensate women for the inevitable loss of income following the birth of a child.

 

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Anatoly Vishnevsky on Russia’s demographic trends.

 

The “double burden” of production and reproduction—work and family—experienced by women in different countries is well documented. In addition to programs designed to bring women out of the private sphere and into the workplace, women’s reproductive functions were emphasized by Soviet authorities through legislation and conservative social practices that advocated motherhood as a natural condition. Many of these laws and customs are still prevalent in Russia. For example, the updated Labor Code (which comes into effect in 2021) excludes women from 100 jobs that require manual labor, and is based on the list of occupations deemed harmful to women’s reproductive health established in 1974. At the same time, the government’s campaign to underscore “traditional” family values has undermined the safety and security of women. Russia lacks a law on domestic violence and decriminalized some forms of battery in 2017 despite the fact that one in five Russian women reports experiencing violence at the hands of a partner.

Maternity capital is unlikely to reverse Russia’s demographic decline, with birth rates predicted to dip again by 2030 as the decline in births of the early 1990s causes a second wave of diminished fertility, with fewer Russian women entering reproductive age. Efficacy does not seem to be, however, the only motivation for a government policy of financial incentives for large families. More broadly, Russia continues to reduce women’s identities to the role of mothers without addressing the underlying economic and political situation that motivates many young Russians—both men and women—to avoid investing in the country’s future.

 

* Anna Williams is a political scientist based in New York.

Russia under Putin

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