MOSCOW (Reuters) â€“ The Russian Orthodox Church on Tuesday called for tougher rules to reduce the number of abortions carried out in a country struggling to combat its fast-dwindling population, media reported. Analysts say reducing Russia's high abortion rate -- one of the world's highest -- could be one of the keys to saving the country from a demographic disaster. Russia registered 1.2 million abortions and 1.7 million births last year, according to the Health Ministry. Since the fall almost 20 years ago of the Soviet Union, which encouraged new births with prizes and money, Russia's population has steadily dropped. It shrunk by more than 12 million between 1992 and 2008. "In Soviet times we got used to abortion and we got used to considering it an unavoidable part of our legal reality and that there is no way to the turn back the page," Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency. "But we see today that it is possible to turn back a great deal," he added. Chaplin, a powerful cleric who is close to Patriarch Kirill, said the legislation had to change but declined to say how. He added that young people unconnected to the church or other spiritual institutions want to see the abortion rate drop. Though the Soviet Union was the first country in the world to legalize universal abortion in 1920, dictator Josef Stalin outlawed it, from 1936 until the time of his death in 1954, to encourage a boost in the birth rate. The United Nations predicts that by 2050 Russia's population will have dropped by almost a fifth from today to 116 million. The U.N. has also said overcoming racism and taking in more migrants could help Russia boost its population. Health experts also say key factors in the decline are poor diet leading to heart disease, heavy drinking among Russian males and the high incidence of violent deaths. The average Russian man lives for 60 years, 13 less than his American counterpart.