Controversial Russian pension reform passes first hurdle – despite historic fall in Putin's rating

People took to the streets in Moscow and St Petersburg, where 14 people were arrested

Oliver Carroll
Friday 20 July 2018 06:51
People hold posters reading from ‘Pension reform is a funeral in life, Stop robbing people’ during a demonstration yesterday in front of the Russian State Duma in Moscow
People hold posters reading from ‘Pension reform is a funeral in life, Stop robbing people’ during a demonstration yesterday in front of the Russian State Duma in Moscow

Russia’s parliament has set in motion a contentious bill to increase the pension age, voting 328-104 to accept the reform in its first reading, despite protests.

An obvious lack of unanimity – in a chamber the previous speaker declared was “no place for discussion” – underlined growing disquiet among Russian elites over the bill. Only the ruling United Russia fraction voted for, with all of the controlled “opposition” parties voting against.

Several deputies in the ruling party, hitherto known for demonstrative displays of loyalty, were mysteriously absent from the vote.

The main provisions of the reform see the pension age increase from 60 for men and 55 for women, to 65 and 63 respectively. Its sponsors say the changes are necessary to bring the law into line with new life expectancy figures. Pension ages were last set in 1936, when pensioners accounted for no more than 2 per cent of the population.

“Life has changed,” the employment minister Maxim Topilin told parliamentarians. “We can’t remain in the 1930s.”

The contentious issue of pension reform has been raised several times in the last two decades, but the government has repeatedly chosen to delay. It presented the bill in less than auspicious economic times. Most Russians have faced real-terms wage falls since 2014, and the outlook is grim.

Mr Putin’s trust ratings have fallen to the lowest recorded ebb since 2011 – below 38 percent, according to state pollsters.

Critics have also railed against the way the pensions plan was communicated, announced with no discussion a few hours before kick off during the opening match of the World Cup, between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia. Fnance minister Anton Siluanov has insisted that this was a coincidence, but the public outcry was real.

“It is a bastardly way to introduce reform,” said the former Kremlin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky in an interview on the Echo of Moscow radio station. “The people have a deal with the Kremlin in return for not protesting – and the most important part of that deal is that they are given the chance to survive.”

In some regions the proposed pension ages fall below average life expectancy – in Chukotka, in the country’s far east, the male life expectancy is 60.33, nearly five years below the proposed pension age.

For many families the change will represent a fundamental shift to their way of life. Even according to state pollsters, eight out of 10 Russians do not agree with the plans. There have already been protests against the reform. On the eve of the bill, 14 people were arrested at an unsanctioned rally in St Petersburg.

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Regardless of whether significant protests follow, the relationship between the people and the state has changed forever, says the political analyst Ekaterina Schulmann “It is a tectonic shift. Even before the pension reform, people were viewing the state as less and less of a father figure. But the reform strengthens that perception.”

In Ms Schulmann's view, these changes will affect the transfer of power between Vladimir Putin and his anointed successor, a process which may begin as early as 2021.

The paw of Mr Putin has remained strangely hidden throughout the process. His press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, has distanced the president from the unpopular bill.

Reports, on the other hand, suggested the president approved the plan before its first reading. And all the while, state media have been kept under strict control. They have been told to avoid the word “reform”, to avoid associations with the “chaotic” 1990s, but nonetheless to keep close to a line emphasising the necessity of reform.

There may not be protests, but the relationship between the people and the state has changed forever 

Ekaterina Schulmann

But the attempt to differentiate a good tsar from bad boyars might not have been altogether successful.

On the back of the controversy, trust in Mr Putin has fallen to the lowest recorded ebb since 2011 – below 38 percent, according to state pollsters. And perhaps more significantly, the president’s ratings are falling steadily in line with government popularity. This is the first time this has happened since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Some now wonder if the president is in danger of losing his Teflon coating.

It may, of course, have been another coincidence, but on the eve and the day of the vote the Russian military released several videos purporting to show the testing of new cutting-edge “Avangard” and “Kinzhal” missiles. Russians are generally supportive of the president’s assertive foreign policy stance – as opposed to domestic policies with which they interact with every day.

Propaganda directors may have decided to use the opportunity to play down reaction to the proposal.

If so they made a mistake, says Ms Schulmann.

“Such propaganda plays well in the capital, which is richer,” she says. “But if you listen to focus groups there is a growing sensitivity to military spending, a sense that we are feeding Syria like the Soviet Union fed Cuba, while neglecting our hospitals and schools. That feeling gets stronger the further away from Moscow you get.”

In parliament today, Mr Topilin offered several sweeteners to the bill. He emphasised that the changes will be offset by increases in the basic pension by 12,000 rubles a year (about £150).

That may not be enough to quell the “unrest” in the political system and across the elite, says the former Kremlin official and consultant Konstantin Kostin. But the government had little choice but to press ahead – which it will now do.

“Some concessions in timings and in exceptions may be possible, but the reform is inevitable,” Mr Kostin told The Independent.

“You can’t ignore a situation where there will soon be one pensioner for every working age adult. It is not so much a question of public discussion as of national security.”

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