Don't touch my pension, Mr. Putin!

RUSNavalnyRetirementMoscow--Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings have survived allegations of high-level corruption and falling living standards in recent years, but they are now falling fast over an unpopular government plan to raise the national retirement age.

Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, announced last month that the state pension age would gradually rise by eight years to 63 for women and five years to 65 for men. The increase is the first change to norms that were established by Soviet authorities during the 1930s.

The news triggered anger and nationwide protests that look set to grow. Just under 60% of Russian men die before the age of 65, according to statistics. Although Russian women can expect to live to 73, many say their employment opportunities are limited once they reach middle age.

“A significant portion of Russian citizens will not survive to retirement,” said the Confederation of Russian Labour, the trade union that is spearheading opposition to the pension reforms, in a statement.

The government’s move, which was announced on World Cup opening day in an apparent bid to bury bad news, was particularly controversial because Mr. Putin had previously pledged he would never increase the age at which Russians can stop working. Mr. Medvedev also announced that VAT would rise from 18% to 20%, earning an extra 600 billion roubles ($9.6 billion) for the Treasury. Mr. Medvedev said that the increase was “unavoidable and long overdue”.

“I’ve worked my whole life and paid taxes, and now the government wants to cheat me out of my pension,” Stanislav Orlov, a 47-year-old I.T. worker in Moscow, told the Washington Times.

Mr. Putin’s ratings have slipped from 77% to 63% since the reforms were announced, according to VTsIOM, the state-run pollster. The slump comes despite Russia’s successful hosting of the 2018 World Cup, which was widely described as one of the best tournaments ever. The figures are the Kremlin strongman’s lowest since shortly before Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, when Mr. Putin’s popularity rocketed to sky-high levels amid a wave of nationalist sentiments.

“For the first time, Putin’s ratings aren’t coinciding with the ratings of Mother Russia,” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, a political commentator for the Vedomosti business newspaper . “Mother Russia is rising, but the father of the nation is falling, and dragging down with him all government institutions.”

Over 90% of Russians are against the increase in the national retirement age, and in a rare show of public dissent, over 2.5 million Russians have signed an online petition calling on Mr. Putin to drop the plan.

Further declines in Mr. Putin’s approval ratings could have dramatic consequences, analysts warned. Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speech writer turned political analyst, said that the president’s popularity underpinned the entire government. “If this foundation vanishes, the whole structure will collapse like a house of cards,” Mr Gallyamov told the BBC’s Russian-language service.

Russians opposed to the pension reforms have held small-scale demonstrations, but protests are banned in major cities like Moscow and St Petersburg until July 25 due to World Cup security measures. One activist risked arrest however by stripping naked and standing on Red Square with a sign that read: “They robbed me even of my underwear.”

Russia’s Communist Party, the second largest party in parliament, is urging further nationwide rallies on July 28 to force the government to reverse its decision. Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, said that the increase in the state pension age would mean that “grannies will no longer be able to look after their grandchildren” while their parents go out to work, as is common in many Russian families. Mr. Zyuganov is calling for a national referendum on the issue, a suggestion that has been rejected by United Russia, Mr. Putin’s ruling party.

“Medvedev and Putin raising the pension age is a genuine crime. It’s a simply robbery of tens of millions of people masquerading as a necessary reform,” said Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin critic.

When reminded of Mr Putin’s 2005 promise that he would never raise the state pension age, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said that rising life expectancies and economic difficulties meant that the president had been forced to go back on his word. “There have been changes both in terms of demography and from the point of view of the level of economic development. No country exists in a vacuum,” Mr. Peskov said. Retirement ages for some professions, including soldiers, police officers, teachers and doctors will remain unaltered.

Some analysts have suggested that the government is actually seeking a smaller increase in the retirement age than the one it has announced and is planning to offset public anger by announcing a watered down version of the plan at a later date. Supporters of the increase say the current pension system is a Soviet-era relic that is badly in need of an overhaul and that it would be untenable in the long-term.

For now, though, the Kremlin is so worried about street protests over the pension issue that it has tasked officials with monitoring the public mood, Russian media has reported, citing sources close to the presidential administration. Some of the largest protests of Mr Putin’s rule took place in 2005 after the government scrapped social benefits for senior citizens.

There are about 36 million senior citizens in Russia, according to government statistics. The average pension is 13,342 rubles ($213) a month, and many are forced to work part-time or depend on financial support from family members to supplement their meagre incomes.

Anton Siluanov, the finance minister, drew fire in June when he suggested that people should set aside funds for their old themselves and not rely entirely on state pensions. About 22 million Russians — roughly 15% of the population — are officially living in poverty, with monthly incomes of less than 9,827 roubles ($157).

“Officials are out of touch with ordinary people,” said Mr. Orlov, the I.T. worker. “I’d like to see Siluanov survive on just an average state pension.”

Photo: Screenshot of a video by Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny criticizing the new retirement age and asking people to join him in a protests on July 1.
Credit: Courtesy of Alexei Navalny's official Instagram page (06/14/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/19/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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