What Russian pension protests mean for Vladimir Putin

Does the wave of anger over a planned hike in the retirement age pose a serious threat to the Russian leader?

Russia protest
A protest against pension reform in Saint Petersburg, Russia
(Image credit: Olga Matlseva/AFP)

Thousands of people took to the streets across Russia yesterday in fresh protests against the government’s plan to raise the retirement age.

The proposed pension overhaul, which is currently before parliament, has sparked a rare outburst of public anger that has seen President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings plummet.

Why are people protesting?

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The government unveiled the deeply unpopular plan in June, announcing that from next year, the retirement age for men will rise from 60 to 65 and from 55 to 63 for women.

After an immediate backlash from the public, Putin agreed to decrease the new retirement age for women to 60.

The Kremlin says the plans are needed to cope with a shrinking workforce having to provide for an increasing number of retirees, and economists agree the move is long overdue.

But critics, who have taken to the streets in a series of demonstrations, say the plan means many Russians won’t live long enough to claim their pension. The average life expectancy in the country is 66 for men and 77 for women.

“Putin and his government have plundered the budget for the past 18 years,” jailed opposition leader and activist Alexei Navalny said ahead of Sunday’s protests.

"All that time they assured us there would not in any circumstance be a rise in the pension age. And now they are putting it up. The authorities are not listening to people and that means it's time to take to the streets,” he added.

What happened yesterday?

Thousands of of people took part in the demonstrations across 25 towns and cities, including in Moscow and in St. Petersburg, and nearly 300 were arrested, according to monitoring groups.

Demonstrators chanted “Russia will be free” and “Putin is a thief” in front of police, Reuters reports.

“Riot police ordered them to disperse or face prosecution,” it says, adding that some of the protesters in central Moscow defied the order and were beaten by police.

The protests, called by Navalny, coincided with local elections in many areas. However, analysts say it’s unlikely that they will have an impact on results, as opposition candidates have been barred from standing.

Are the protests a threat to Putin?

The proposals have been heavily criticised by Russia’s usually subservient press, with Moskovski Komsomolets, a popular Moscow newspaper, describing them as the “most dangerous and risky reform of President Putin's 20-year rule”.

The move has seen Putin’s approval rating drop by 15% and “unlike protests against corruption organised by Navalny, which have rallied mostly young people, the pension protests have brought older Russians, often seen as Mr Putin’s base, into the streets,” says the New York Times.

An independent poll carried out in July found that 89% of Russians were against the reforms.

But the protests are unlikely to reach levels that threaten political stability, according to the Financial Times.

“If needed, Mr Putin could still step in as the ‘good tsar’ to insist [Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev’s team reduces the age increases, preserving the essence of the reform but appearing to compromise,” the paper says.

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