In Russia, Plan to Raise Pension Age Draws Protests

The government announced the change at start of the World Cup, when it was least likely to be noticed.

An older woman sits at a bus stop next to a poster featuring Zabivaka, the official mascot of the 2018 World Cup, in downtown Moscow on April 4. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)
An older woman sits at a bus stop next to a poster featuring Zabivaka, the official mascot of the 2018 World Cup, in downtown Moscow on April 4. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

President Vladimir Putin owes much of his popularity and power to an informal social contract he has managed to maintain with Russians over the years: He provides them with moderate prosperity and stability, and, in exchange, they accept his authoritarian rule.

But that pact was called into question over the weekend, as thousands of people across the country took to the streets to protest the government’s plan to raise the age that Russians can claim their pensions, a move that would impact millions.

The demonstrations played out against the backdrop of the World Cup, which Russia is hosting. Russian authorities have banned protests in major cities for the duration of the tournament, but demonstrations took place in about 30 smaller towns and cities across the country. Thousands of people turned out for a rally in the Siberian city of Omsk and called on Putin to resign.

“The government just wants to steal the pension savings of millions, forcing them to work to death,” the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny wrote in an Instagram post.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced changes to the pension law on the day the World Cup kicked off in Russia, June 14. The pension issue has long been a political third rail, and analysts believe the government hoped its decision would go unnoticed as the games were getting underway.

The current Russian retirement age has remained the same since pensions were first introduced during the Soviet era under Joseph Stalin. Reforms are long overdue as the state pension fund continues to hemorrhage money and the population ages. Under the current proposals, the age at which Russians would qualify for pensions would rise gradually from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women.

But with Russian life expectancy hovering at 67 for men and 77 for women, many Russians would simply not live long enough to claim their pensions.

“That’s essentially where the government fundamentally saves its money. Which is gruesome, but that’s what we’re talking about here,” said Yuval Weber, a fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School.

Raising the retirement age was mentioned in Putin’s first economic strategy when he took office 18 years ago, but the idea has been almost universally unpopular. When authorities attempted to make major changes to pension benefits in 2005, mass protests erupted.

“It’s a social issue that got people out onto the streets. In the middle of winter, they had elderly people out in the streets with their wheelchairs and walkers,” said Linda Cook, a professor of political science and Slavic studies at Brown University, referring to the 2005 protests.

At the time, the demonstrations were the largest Russia had seen under Putin’s rule, and the government was eventually forced to scale back the changes.

But Putin is now in his fourth term as president and riding high on the success of the World Cup. The proposal is seen as a critical test of his power and of the fragmented Russian opposition’s ability to channel dissent.

In recent years, Russian authorities have refined their ability to quickly extinguish street protests. During an anti-corruption rally in Moscow last year, police arrested some 700 people, including many teens.

But the Russian government is evidently wary of the public’s response to the recent proposals. To shield himself from criticism, Putin has said the reforms were the initiative of Medvedev and his cabinet.

“His [Medvedev’s] job is to be a subordinate of Vladimir Putin, to not have too big a natural constituency, and to take criticism,” said Weber of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School.

Nevertheless, Putin’s approval ratings dipped to 63 percent, according to the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center, after the proposal to raise the retirement age was announced, a level not seen since before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, when his popularity shot up to 72 percent.

“In the span of three months, he’s basically lost the Crimea bump,” Weber said.

But Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said he was skeptical that Putin’s popularity would be seriously dented.

“Putin is still the flag to rally around,” he said. “When you ask Russians, ‘Do you approve of Putin?’ it’s the same as asking them, ‘Do you approve of your motherland?’”

Putin came to power in 2000, after a decade of crony capitalism, gangsterism, and poverty left many Russians traumatized. He promised to restore the country to greatness both at home and on the world stage.

During his first two terms in office, unemployment fell, and Russia’s GDP rose steadily, boosted by rising oil prices. But in recent years most Russians have found that prosperity to be increasingly elusive. The country also just emerged from a two-year recession that was due in part to fluctuating oil prices and Western sanctions.

With most of the country’s media under state control, authorities have been able to persuade many Russians that others are to blame for their problems — from the liberal philanthropist George Soros to Western leaders.

But it will be harder for Putin to blame outsiders for the pension crisis.

Still, Cook said she believed the government’s careful handling of the issue may stave off major unrest.

“I would be surprised if there were significant protests [going forward],” she said.

“But then I’m part of a professional group that did not anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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