Vladimir Putin made a direct appeal to the Russians to ask for support in raising the retirement age, warning that without urgent action the country and hyperinflation, as well as threats to its national security.
In a televised address to the nation, the president offered some concessions on the government’s unpopular draft legislation, and detailed a series of measures to alleviate fears that some older people could be left without pensions or jobs.
Putin’s approval rating has slid to a four-year low since the proposed pension changes were first announced on 14 June, the opening day of the World Cup, which Russia hosted. About 90% of Russians are against raising the retirement age, according to opinion polls, and there have been protests across the country involving an unusually broad spectrum of opposition groups.
In a 30-minute speech, Putin diluted the government’s plans, saying the national retirement age for women should be increased from 55 to 60, instead of 63, as previously proposed. “In our country, there is a special, gentle attitude to women,” he said.
The national retirement age for men, however, would still rise by five years, from 60 to 65.
The president also said laws should be introduced to make it an offence for employers to fire workers who are approaching pension age, as well as to clamp down on age discrimination in the workplace.
Putin said he had always been against the “painful” changes to the pension system and reminded Russians that he had pledged in 2005 that there would be no alteration to the age at which Russians can retire and claim a state pension while he was president. But he said “serious demographic problems” meant there was no alternative to the increase, which would represent the first adjustment to national retirement ages established under Joseph Stalin.
While state pensions average just 13,342 rubles (£154) a month, they are a lifeline for millions of Russians without relatives able to support them financially.
According to government statistics, Russia’s population decreased by 164,000 in the first six months of this year, compared with 119,000 during the same period last year. By 2044, the number of pensioners could equal the number of people in work, according to government forecasts, putting massive pressure on the national budget.
Putin said a failure to adopt the pension changes would lead to a rise in poverty and catastrophic consequences for the economy, which would leave the government unable to guarantee national security.
The reforms will not affect members of the state security services or police officers, a controversial decision that some analysts say could spark a rise in anti-Putin sentiment. “If the Kremlin’s opponents manage to exploit this, they will cause the authorities serious political damage,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter who is now a political consultant.
The government’s plans are widely unpopular because many Russians fear they will not live to see their pensions. While nationwide life expectancies are rising, they remain low, especially for men, for whom the average age of death is 66. The European average for men is 79.
Putin, however, sought to portray the unpopular changes as a necessary sacrifice to ensure the wellbeing of future generations. “The easiest thing, the simplest thing for today’s authorities, would be not to change anything at all,” he said.