- - Thursday, July 19, 2018

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings have survived reports of high-level corruption and falling living standards in recent years, but they are now falling quickly because of a government plan to raise the national retirement age.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced last month that the state pension age would rise gradually beginning next year — from 55 to 63 for women and from 60 to 65 for men. The increase marks the first change to retirement age norms, which Soviet authorities established in the 1930s.

The announcement triggered anger and nationwide protests that appear likely to grow.

Nearly 60 percent of Russian men die before age 65, according to statistics. Although average 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 a statement by the Confederation of Labor of Russia, a national trade union that is spearheading opposition to the pension reforms.

The government announced the move on the opening day of the World Cup in an apparent bid to bury bad news.

Mr. Putin previously pledged to never increase the retirement age for Russians.

In his remarks on June 14, Mr. Medvedev said the government’s value-added tax would rise from 18 percent to 20 percent to draw an extra $9.6 billion into the Russian treasury. The prime minister described the increase as “unavoidable and long-overdue.”

The announcements upset many Russians outside the government.

“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 information technology worker in Moscow, told The Washington Times.

Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have slipped from 77 percent to 63 percent since the reforms were announced, according to the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center.

Although the Russian-hosted World Cup has been 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. After the annexation, Mr. Putin’s popularity soared amid a wave of nationalist sentiments.

“For the first time, Putin’s ratings aren’t coinciding with the ratings of Mother Russia,” political commentator Andrei Kolesnikov wrote recently 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.”

Polls show that more than 90 percent of Russians oppose an increase in the national retirement age and, in a rare show of public dissent, more than 2.5 million Russians have signed an online petition calling on Mr. Putin to drop the plan.

Analysts say further declines in Mr. Putin’s approval ratings could have dramatic consequences. The president’s popularity has underpinned the entire government, said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst.

“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, although protests are banned in major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg until Wednesday because of World Cup security measures.

One activist has risked arrest by stripping naked and standing on Red Square with a sign that read, “They robbed me even of my underwear.”

The Communist Party, the second-largest party in parliament, is calling for further nationwide rallies on July 28 to pressure the government to reverse its decision.

Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, has said the increase in the state pension age would mean “grannies will no longer be able to look after their grandchildren” while their parents go to work, as is common in many Russian families.

Mr. Zyuganov is calling for a national referendum on the issue, but United Russia, Mr. Putin’s ruling party, has rejected that suggestion.

Others have denounced the government’s moves more sharply.

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

The government has downplayed the criticism. When reminded of Mr. Putin’s 2005 promise to never raise the state pension age, Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said rising life expectancies and economic difficulties forced the president 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.

The Kremlin has also emphasized that retirement ages for some professions, including soldiers, police officers, teachers and doctors will remain unaltered.

Some analysts suggest that the government is seeking a smaller increase in the retirement age than what it has announced and plans to offset public anger by revealing a watered-down version at a later date.

Supporters of the age increase say the pension system is a Soviet relic badly in need of an overhaul and that it would be untenable in the long term.

The Kremlin is so worried about street protests over the pension issue that it has tasked officials with monitoring the public mood, according to Russian media reports 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.

Government statistics show that Russia has about 36 million senior citizens. The average pension is $213 a month, and many are forced to work part time or depend on financial support from family members to supplement their meager incomes.

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov drew fire in June when he suggested that Russians set aside their own funds for old age and not rely entirely on state pensions.

About 22 million Russians — roughly 15 percent of the population — are officially living in poverty, with monthly incomes of less than $157.

“Officials are out of touch with ordinary people,” said Mr. Orlov, the internet technology worker. “I’d like to see Siluanov survive on just an average state pension.”

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