Putin Calls for End to Country's Drastic Population Decline

President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday the country must increase its birthrate, calling the persistent population decline of hundreds of thousands a year "the most acute problem of contemporary Russia."

In his annual state of the nation address, Putin said childcare benefits should be increased and that women who have a second child should be supported because they often are out of work for a long time.

CountryWatch: Russia

"We must at least stimulate the birth of a second child," Putin said, adding that concerns about housing, health care and education are prompting many families to stop at one.

Russia's population is dropping by about 700,000 a year, Putin said. The phenomenon began in the wake of the 1991 Soviet collapse, which left much of the population impoverished and uncertain. However, Russia's economy has grown sharply in recent years, largely boosted by high world oil prices.

In the address to both houses of parliament, Putin encouraged legislators to budget for more generous birth bonuses, childcare support subsidies and educational benefits for mothers to encourage women to have children.

"I am convinced that with such an approach, you will earn words of gratitude from millions of mothers, young families, all the citizens of our country," Putin said.

He also called on more Russians to take in foster children from institutions where about 200,000 orphans and abandoned children are interned.

Most Russian families are small, with couples usually having only one or two children. Putin and his wife have two daughters.

Russia's population dropped by about 4 percent to 142.7 million between 1993 and 2006, according to the Health Ministry. Experts attribute the plunge to economic turmoil that has badly hurt the state health care system, leading to a drop in birth rates and life expectancy. Increased poverty, alcoholism, soaring crime and emigration have also taken their toll. Average life expectancy is just 66 years — 16 years lower than Japan and 14 years lower than the European Union average.

The ITAR-Tass news agency reported that Putin's comments on reversing the population decline prompted 27 bursts of applause and that listeners in all applauded 47 times — more than in any of his other state of the nation addresses.