President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday promised to step up the fight against the country's dramatic demographic decline, boosted by the news of the first annual population increase since 1995.
But Health and Social Development Minister Tatyana Golikova warned that a host of negative factors need to be tackled, including a looming drop in women in their fertile years and sky-high abortion rates.
Golikova said Monday that preliminary statistics for last year showed that the country's population of 141.9 million had either remained stable or increased by 15,000 to 25,000 people.
The country's population has shrunk by 6 million since the Soviet collapse in 1991 because of economic hardship, rampant alcoholism and other factors.
Speaking at a Kremlin meeting of the presidential council for national projects, Medvedev said the state would focus on reducing infant and mother mortality rates, fighting alcohol and drug abuse and improving support for families and children.
Part of the government's effort is to build more maternity hospitals. The government promised back in 2008 to build 23 so-called perinatal centers by the end of this year. Medvedev said he would like to hear how construction has progressed.
Infant mortality — deaths under the age of 1 — has fallen to 8.1 children per 1,000 births nationally but still stands at more than 10 in impoverished regions like Chechnya, which had a rate of 16.7 last year, Golikova said in a statement on her ministry's web site.
According to UNICEF, the infant mortality rate in 2007 was five deaths per 1,000 live births in Britain and seven in the United States.
Golikova said last year's positive population figures were mainly achieved through an influx of immigrants, mostly from other former Soviet republics, while 1.76 million births could not replace 1.95 million deaths.
The minister told the council Tuesday that self-sustained population growth could only be achieved if the overall mortality rate were reduced by 5 percent annually through 2015, Interfax reported. Last year, she said, mortality was reduced by 4 percent.
Yet her ministry warned that the task would be complicated by an expected sharp drop in potential mothers. The share of women between 20 and 29, regarded as the most fertile age, is forecast to fall from a current 8.6 percent to 4.8 percent in 2020, the ministry said in an analysis posted on its web site.
Because of that, the ministry said, the country needs to significantly reduce the number of abortions, which is among the highest in the world.
Although abortion numbers have fallen by 23 percent over the past five years, they are still more than three times higher than in the United States. In 2008, Russia recorded 1.714 million births and 1.234 million abortions, which translates into a rate of 72 abortions per 100 births. Comparable U.S. statistics stand at 20 abortions per 100 births.
"Reducing abortions won't solve the birthrate problem by 100 percent, but by about 20 to 30 percent," Golikova told reporters Monday, Interfax reported.
Medvedev did not mention the abortion issue Tuesday, but he said the state should increase cooperation with and support for nongovernmental organizations that assist children and families.
The president also announced a 15 billion ruble ($0.5 billion) program to modernize the country's education system.
Part of the initiative is to reform teachers' salaries by adding performance-related pay, Medvedev said. "This is not just about increasing salaries but a whole set of measures to motivate those who achieve very good results," he said.
Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko announced this week that the country's pedagogical colleges, where teachers are trained, would be overhauled. "We have no shortage of teachers but a shortage of good teachers," he was quoted as saying by Kommersant.
Teachers' salaries average at 11,200 rubles ($378) nationwide and 36,000 rubles ($1,200) in Moscow, Fursenko said.
Statistics released by the Education and Science Ministry this week showed the dramatic effects of the demographic crisis on schools and universities.
While the number of first graders rose from 1.25 million in 2007 to 1.39 million in 2009 — the first increase in 12 years in 2009 — the overall number of high school students almost halved from 20.6 million in 1998 to 13.3 million last year.
The number of high school graduates fell from 1.25 million in 1998 to 900,000 in 2009 and is expected to drop to 700,000 in 2012.
As a consequence, university student numbers are expected to drop from the current 7.5 million to 4 million in the 2012-13 school year.
The country's population decline has dampened economic growth projections.
U.S. bank Goldman Sachs said in a report last month that Russia's economy could grow by 1.5 percent to 4.4 percent a year from 2011 to 2050, way behind the 3.6 percent to 7.9 percent annual growth projection for China or the 5.8 percent to 6.6 percent annual growth projection for India, Reuters reported.
The country's economy contracted by at least 8.5 percent in 2009, the biggest annual decline in 15 years.