Go forth and multiply, Medvedev tells his declining population

Russia's president called on his citizens to go forth and multiply yesterday, promising bonuses for families who have three or more children.

Dmitry Medvedev used a major speech to the country's political elite to decry the "demographic crisis", telling regional leaders they should follow the example of the Ivanovo region, where families who had three or more children are given extra land or a free country house.

But in a speech that some people were expecting Mr Medvedev to use as a campaign platform for the 2012 presidential elections, he had few concrete targets or policies and instead offered a mix of vague suggestions and moderate threats. In the week that Wikileaks revealed that American diplomats view Mr Medvedev as "Robin" to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's "Batman", the speech will have done little to dispel doubts that Mr Putin plans to sweep aside his protégé and return to the Kremlin in 2012.

Mr Medvedev, who last year used the same speech to talk at length about the need to liberalise the country, this year stayed away from politics and devoted the speech to Russia's children. He said: "In the next 15 years we will feel the demographic effects of the 1990s when the birth rate was low – this is a serious threat. It is a challenge to our whole nation. According to experts, a good way to get over the demographic crisis is to radically increase the number of families with three or more children."

Russia has suffered from a plummeting population since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Recently, the Kremlin reinstated a Stalin-era practice of awards ceremonies for particularly prolific parents, and Mr Medvedev said yesterday that child benefit would be raised for the third child and beyond in each family.

The Russian President also warned of the dangers of not concluding a new treaty on missile defence. The Kremlin is wary of Nato missile defence plans and the delay in the United States over the ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed by President Medvedev and Barack Obama in April. That was the centrepiece of the much-vaunted "reset" of relations, but Republicans in the Senate have been pushing to stall ratification of the treaty.

"In the coming decade we face the following alternatives: Either we reach agreement on missile defence and create a full-fledged joint mechanism of cooperation, or... a new round of the arms race will begin," Mr Medvedev said, escalating his previous rhetoric on the issue. "And we will have to take a decision about the deployment of new offensive weapons. It is clear that this scenario would be very grave."

Aside from this moment, there was little fighting talk from Russia's leader. The Wikileaks cables have been embarrassing for Mr Medvedev – in addition to the Batman and Robin comparison, another cable apparently refers to him as "pale and hesitant", while Mr Putin is designated the "alpha dog" of the two.

Most analysts would agree with these epithets, and see little real desire on the part of Mr Medvedev to break with his predecessor and pursue a genuinely liberal agenda. The two men have repeatedly said they will decide between themselves who will run for president at the next elections, due in 2012. Nevertheless, there is believed to be a genuine struggle between members of their respective teams.

Yesterday, the closest that Mr Medvedev came to a dig at his predecessor was in the most oblique terms while discussing education: "As Winston Churchill once said, school teachers have the kind of power of which prime ministers can only dream."

Mr Putin's reaction was not clear, but the remark drew wry smiles from others present.

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