The presidential address and the nation’s prospects: "Give birth, give birth, and give birth again!"

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“Most people in President Putin’s audience, apart from some Cabinet ministers, wore expressions of delighted surprise,” said Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, describing the reaction of those who gathered in the Kremlin’s Marble Hall on May 10 to hear President Putin deliver his annual address to parliament.

Mironov wasn’t alone in his response to Putin’s speech. Profil magazine reports high praise from senators and Duma members, ministers and regional leaders – and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, of course, who described the presidential address as “stunning, agreeable, and very businesslike.”

Governor Oleg Korolev of the Lipetsk region was more emotional: “This is the best address ever – I’m simply thrilled by it.”

Governor Alexei Lebed of Khakasia also found an expressive phrase, stressing that the address was “strong in delivery and in the objectives it set out.”

Governor Alexander Tkachev of the Krasnodar territory was even more impressive, telling Profil that the address “sent a strong message.”

And Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky had to have his say, of course; he rated all the theses in the address as “A+” and promised to make a personal contribution to solving the demographic problem – by fathering four more children before 2016.

Even non-governmental organizations, usually more inclined to take a critical view of the authorities, didn’t hold back on the compliments this time. Then again, as the Kommersant newspaper reports, these compliments were expressed at a special gathering organized by the Public Chamber at the Russian National Library.

Kommersant points out that this was the first “combined event for a broad range of community groups and their alleged representative, the Public Chamber.” It seemed rather symbolic that this first meeting was devoted to discussing the presidential address.

Maria Slobodskaya, chairwoman of the Public Chamber’s commission on developing civil society and community participation in the national projects, stated directly at the meeting that “the president’s speech was utterly brilliant.” But she added that “it still lacks something.” More precisely, it lacks “a clear instruction for the government to implement the proposals in the address.”

Anatoly Epstein, a Federation Council expert, expressed some doubts over whether the address can be implemented at all, since it is “systematically at odds with society.”

Others present at the meeting expressed themselves even more resolutely. For example, Public Chamber member Oleg Zykov said that President Putin has some mistaken notions about methods of solving Russia’s demographic problem. Zykov said: “It’s poor technique to view women as cattle who just need to be given more feed in order to make them have more children.”

Zykov was supported by another Public Chamber member – Dr. Leonid Roshal, a prominent pediatrician. He pointed out that “demography does not depend on money.” Worldwide, said Roshal, the opposite situation is the case: “the poorer the country, the higher its birth-rate.” Still, he didn’t neglect to point out that overall, “the address made a deep-seated impression.”

Duma members have already managed to contribute their two cents to expanding upon the postulates in the presidential address.

Ekaterina Lakhova, chairwoman of the Duma committee for the affairs of women, the family, and children, commented to the Izvestia newspaper on the demographic part of Putin’s speech, and shared her own point of view on the reproduction problem.

“Vladimir Ilyich Lenin said: ‘Study, study, and keep studying!’ said Lakhova. “And Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has said: ‘Have children, have children, and have more children!'”

Lakhova also has a clear idea of how to make sure that President Putin’s directives are followed: “We need to make pregnancy fashionable. If television broadcasts showed the beautiful stomachs of pregnant women, we’d get some results.”

Actually, there are already some results. Kommersant reports that the United Russia faction presidium has voted to postpone the second reading of the bill on abolishing a number of conscription deferments until early June.

Kommersant explains that the main reason for the postponement is “a new dilemma over the issue of deferments for men who are fathers of young children or whose wives are pregnant.” Duma members are arguing that abolishing this kind of deferment would have a negative impact on efforts to improve Russia’s demographic situation, as President Putin has ordered.

Vladislav Vasiliev, chairman of the Duma security committee, said that if husbands of pregnant wives are conscripted, this could result in a situation “where we don’t have anyone to defend.”

Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov, who attended the presidium meeting, could only respond by noting that the bill in question had been submitted to the Duma before the presidential address was delivered, so its authors couldn’t take the address into account.

Eventually, Duma members voted for postponement. They will “work on the bill some more, to take account of the new proposals, and ask the Kremlin, just in case, whether they’ve understood President Putin correctly, and whether retaining deferments on the grounds of fatherhood might not interfere with achieving another ojective: strengthening the Armed Forces.”

Ekspert magazine notes that it’s hardly surprising to see the demographic problem becoming the center of attention. Our country’s birth-rate dropped disastrously – from 17 to nine births per thousand people per year – back in the 1990s, while the death rate rose from 10 to 15 per thousand people. “So it becomes a matter of reproducing labor resources, at least – or, at most, retaining sovereignty and national territory.”

But specialists say that President Putin’s proposed measures are unlikely to prove effective.

“The Kremlin seems to have found a universally-applicable way of solving any urgent problem: throw money at it,” say Nikita Belykh and Leonid Gozman, chairman and deputy chairman of the Union of Right Forces federal council, in an article for Vedomosti. They go on to say: “This method will mostly stimulate the birth-rate in Russia’s poorest regions, especially in southern Russia.”

Moreover, Belykh and Gozman are surprised to see that while President Putin “justifiably regards demographic decline as a serious problem,” he’s more concerned about a shortage of military personnel than a general labor shortage.

Dr. Natalia Rimashevskaya, director of the Gender Studies Laboratory at the Institute of Socio-Economic Problems of the Population, told Ekspert that financial stimuli aren’t effective for long – no more than two or three years. “We need to change people’s behavior and the conditions that determine their behavior,” says Rimashevskaya. “After all, having children is a natural need. And if people aren’t experiencing that need, there must be some sort of obstacles present.”

Even if we accept that the major obstacle is a lack of money, “it must be acknowledged that the sums offered by the president are too small.” In Rimashevskaya’s opinion, “only the most impoverished layers of society” would be encouraged to have children by payments of 1,500 to 3,000 rubles per month. “And I’m not sure that those layers ought to be having many children,” says Rimashevskaya. But the middle class is unlikely to be interested in the sums mentioned by President Putin.

Kommersant-Dengi magazine says that President Putin essentially proposed a new national project in his address to parliament. The measures aimed at offering material incentives for child-bearing, described in detail by the president, are reminiscent of similar provisions in European countries. Of course, the sums of money to be offered in Russia will be much less than their French or German counterparts, but they will still be a substantial addition to budget spending: “And in order to reach European levels of birth-rate incentives, Russia’s social spending would have to be increased by 2% of GDP.”

Then again, the Vedomosti newspaper maintains that not all the Kremlin’s declarations should be taken at face value.

All this is more likely to be “boundless populism,” which has become “a real problem in contemporary politics,” says Vladimir Milov, president of the Energy Policy Institute, in an article for Vedomosti. In Milov’s opinion, Putin’s address is comparable to Leonid Brezhnev’s speeches at CPSU congresses. Though Putin himself is nothing like Brezhnev, of course: “But there’s also the future to consider – proposals to extend the president’s term in office are already being discussed.”

Kommersant-Vlast magazine says that President Putin’s proposed plan for fighting the demographic crisis “might well be the keystone for a presidential candidate’s campaign policy program.” These measures “are quite capable of attracting the votes of the weaker sex, who make up the larger and more active part of the electorate.”

There are various ways for Putin to transfer this “motherhood rating” to his designated successor. Stimulating the birth-rate could be declared an official national project, for example – then Dmitri Medvedev would benefit, since he’s in charge of the national projects.

But opinion polls indicate that voters are already prepared to vote for any candidate Putin indicates. In that case, says Kommersant-Vlast, “the present level of the people’s love for Putin, reinforced by the latest demographic initiatives,” would certainly be extended to his successor.

But some people have doubts about that.

If we accept that Putin is serving out his final term in office, says Kommersant-Vlast, his “announcement of some obvious campaign slogans 18 months before the campaign begins” would appear to be a false start.

But it would be a different matter if the Kremlin really is planning Operation Third Term instead of Operation Successor.

In that event, what matters to Putin isn’t boosting his personal approval rating, which is already high, but “proving to citizens that he is irreplaceable.” And the new program for increasing the birth-rate – note that its effect will last for two years or so – would serve as fairly convincing evidence of that.

“Kremlin-linked” political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky agrees.

In Pavlovsky’s opinion, the presidential address will “reinforce Vladimir Putin’s monopoly leadership in the lead-up to the next elections, and increase the people’s desire to see him stay on as president for a third term.”

Then again, it’s unlikely that the people’s love needs any incentives. The Gazeta newspaper reports that in a May poll done by the Levada Center, a third of respodents say they would vote for Putin if an election were held right now. His potential successors, Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, score only 1% and 2% respectively. Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov gets 4% – so he’d lose to Putin in the first round of voting.

At a recent meeting with VGTRK journalists in Sochi, Putin promised that when the time comes, he’ll name his successor. All the media reported his words: “I don’t think I have the right to say: ‘That’s it, I’m leaving, thank you very much, now sort things out however you like.’ That won’t happen, of course.” While acknowledging that the problem of handing over Russia to someone reliable does exit, Putin added (fully in line with democratic principles) that the final choice “must be made by the people.”

There is every sign that the people have already made their choice.

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