ULYANOVSK, Russia – Make a baby. Win a car.
Don't be surprised if the streets are empty and curtains drawn in this central Russian region Wednesday as residents take up an offer by the regional governor to help stem Russia's demographic crisis.
Ulyanovsk Gov. Sergei Morozov has decreed Sept. 12 a Day of Conception and is giving couples time off from work to procreate. Couples who give birth nine months later on Russia's national day -- June 12 -- will receive money, cars, refrigerators and other prizes.
It's the third year that the Volga River region, about 550 miles east of Moscow, has held the contest. Since then, the number of competitors -- and the number of babies born -- has been on the rise.
"If there's a good, healthy atmosphere at home within the family, if the husband and wife both love each other and their child, they will be in good spirits and that will extend to the workplace. So there will be a healthy atmosphere throughout the country," he told AP Television News. "The leadership (of the country) is interested in the family."
Russia's population has dropped since the 1991 Soviet collapse, fed by declining birth rates, a low life expectancy, a spike in emigration, a frayed health care system and other factors. The country -- the world's largest -- now has just 141.4 million citizens, making it one of the most sparsely settled nations. And experts estimate the population could fall below 100 million by 2050.
Just 311 women signed up to take part in the first competition, in 2005, and qualify for a half-day off from work. The next June, 46 more babies were born in Ulyanovsk's 25 hospitals compared to the previous June, including 28 born on June 12, officials said.
More than 500 women signed up for the contest in 2006 -- resulting nine months later in 78 babies, or more than triple the region's daily average. So far this year, the region's birth rate is up 4.5 percent compared to the same period last year.
"I don't think people get pregnant just to get a prize on the 12th (of June) but if the dates coincide and they give you a ... car there's nothing wrong with that," said Yuri, a 28-year-old father-to-be who declined to give his last name.
Last year, President Vladimir Putin called the demographic crisis the country's most acute problem and announced a broad effort to boost the birthrate, including cash subsidies for couples giving birth to more than one child. Women who give birth to their second or third child receive $10,000 vouchers to pay for education or home repairs.
In Ulyanovsk, everyone who has a baby in a local hospital on June 12 gets some kind of prize. The winners of the grand prize -- a locally made SUV called a UAZ-Patriot -- are couples judged by a committee on criteria such as "respectability" and "commendable parenting."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the effort has drawn snickers. According to one joke circulating on the Internet, regional university teachers -- after being ordered to draw up special activities for Wednesday -- proposed covering the floors of school gymnasiums with mattresses and dimming the lights.
Andrei Kartuzov, who won the last "make a baby" grand prize along with his wife, Irina, said they had been planning to have another child anyway.
The campaign "is a good help for people, especially for those living in villages," he said. "If they hold such actions every year, then maybe we will have (more children) growing up and Russia will be bigger."