Vladimir Putin is watering the pension reform down: women will have to work only some extra years; social benefits and an increase in pension payments are promised. These measures might weaken the protest mood, but not for long.
Vladimir Putin might have put it plainly (“We cannot afford a low retirement age, so we have to tighten the belt”), but he has been keeping some options open. The retirement age for women will not increase to 63 years (as it was earlier planned by the government, but only to 60 years. However, the retirement age for men remains as expected (65). The right to early retirement is provided for women who have 37 years of work experience and men whose period of employment is not less than 45 years. Social benefits and the right to early retirement for women with three children will be preserved.
If they had not started the reform, a state finance disaster might happen soon, the Russian president said. Speaking about the reasons for it, he referred to economic and even historical factors, including the Great Patriotic War and the first post-Soviet decade. According to him, as Russia lost many citizens during the war and then made up for losses, now there are many retirees born during the post-war boom. However, in the 1990s, the Russians did not have many kids due to the poor economic situation and poverty. That is why there are too few of ‘the children of the 90s’, which undermines the stability of the pension system, he stated. And that’s why he should raise the retirement age – in spite of the public anger.
The Russian authorities used 2018 World Cup to distract the public from introducing the reform. When the great sporting event kicked off, the government revealed its plans. However, it was impossible to push it behind the scenes. The retirement age for men was to increase from the current 60 years to 65, for women – from 55 to 63. The government stressed that the state budget could get about $10 bn due to the reform,. But most Russians had a different opinion. In accordance with statistical data, Russian women’s average life span is 77.4 years, while male life expectancy is drastically lower – 67.5. many Russian citizens realized that what raising the retirement age meant and took to the streets.
On July 1, amid the World Cup fever, tens of thousands of people protested in Tomsk, Omsk, Chelyabinsk, Irkutsk and Novorossiysk. The scale of the protest came as a surprise to the authorities. What is more, the protest mood was even spotted in large provincial cities that are usually regarded as ‘nurseries’ of Putin’s supporters. In the summer, the popularity of the president dropped to 42 percent, the lowest figure since 2013, the time before the annexation of Crimea.
As it turned out, the role of Alexei Navalny and other oppositionists in the organization of the rally was not significant. The opposition, of course, attempted to take the plunge, but it was not able to. The Kremlin established a crisis headquarters and quickly neutralized its actions. The so-called rubber-stamping opposition (Communists, Dmitry Rogozin’s party, pro-Kremlin trade unions) reservedly expressed solidarity with the protesters. Propaganda accused Navalny of rioting for American money. Finally, a few days ago Navalny was arrested for 30 days. Apparently, the authorities are set to prevent him from showing up at the protest rallies against the pension reform in early September. They also want to silence him for the period of Putin’s voicing the plan of a ‘softer’ version of the reform.
However, it is just a temporary respite for the Kremlin that resorted to the good old-fashioned show of ‘a tsar who is close to the people against slave-driving boyars’. In Putin’s version, the kind president does take care of the people, while the evil noblemen are the Kremlin technocrats, the liberals. It was them whom Putin blamed for drafting a stern reform. The Kremlin has long ago created a number of black sheep characters; this time, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has to drink to the lees. It was no coincidence that Medvedev went off the public radar in mid-August: he did not post anything on his favourite social networks and stopped making TV appearances.
“It is obvious that the Kremlin liberals, headed by Medvedev at the forefront will now be presented as soulless officials who do not care of the nation. And it is no one but Putin who will then come and take the burden off the people’s back,” Oleg Kashin, a journalist at Echo of Moscow, said.
But it is only semblance of Putin’s making people’s life easier. In fact, the reform will be relaxed only a little. Reducing the retirement age for women by 3 years and introducing the reform on a phased basis is not a great liberalization. But the Kremlin does hope for redirecting the public anger to liberals and the opposition.
Talking the compatriots into the reform, he mentioned the enemies of Russia who ‘keep attacking the country’ not without reason. In the coming days, one can expect that a front of support for the Putin version of the reform will be formed – e.g. the United Russia party, local administration bodies. Even trade unions and puppet opposition will be delighted with the words of the president. As a result, on critic of the reform may remain on the battlefield – Alexei Navalny, who was put into prison. Just in case.