People in Russia said nothing when Vladimir Putin became president for the fifth time in a row. They said nothing when the government sent troops, along with money the country was short of, to Syria, Ukraine, and even the Central African Republic.
They kept silent when authorities jailed people for memes and posts on social media. But when the government announced the rise of the retirement age, Russians exploded.
The Reform That Drives People Crazy
The Russian pension system changed numerous times during Putin’s terms. Since 2015, the government has been using a formula with “pension points” to calculate how much each retiree would get. The only thing that remained stable was that women retired at 55, and men at 60.
In June, Russia’s authorities decided to raise the retirement age. The move was announced during the FIFA World Cup hosted by 11 Russian cities. For the duration of the tournament, all the demonstrations were banned there.
The announcement came despite Putin’s promise that the rise would not take place, which he made just several months before. Exactly three months after his re-election, the government declared that it could not afford to keep the retirement age at the level set nearly 90 years ago. So, since Russian women live approximately 10 years longer than men, they will have to work eight more years, and men — five more.
According to the government, such rise will allow increasing the pensions’ amount from the current $200 to $300 in the future. This way, the pension will cover a little bit more than just the basic needs of retirees. The problem is that current life expectancy of men in Russia is 67.5 years, which means that an average Russian man will enjoy his pension just for two and a half years, and many more will not even make it to their retirement.
“This is not a reform. A reform is a complex of actions. This is just a rise and I’m against it because I haven’t heard of any reasonable economic arguments for it,” Vladimir Korolev, a Russian man in his forties, told The Globe Post.
Korolev is not alone in his desire to prevent changes. Since they were announced, there were dozens of protests all over the country. Most of them were organized either by Communists, who remain popular in Russia or by opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Protesters demand to hold a referendum on the issue. Mr. Korolev is one of them.
«Отнестись с пониманием» и действовать https://t.co/0MvUs5E2v4
— Alexey Navalny (@navalny) September 3, 2018
“I’ve never counted on the pension from the government. I was sure one way or another it would be stolen from me by the government itself,” Kirill Pavlov, 45, told The Globe Post. “I support protest movement because that is what an honest man should do. I don’t think I will ever make any profit from it.”
People of Korolev’s and Pavlov’s age were put in the most vulnerable position: they will not receive a pension for another 20-25 years, but employers are already considering them too old to be hired, especially after Putin announced punitive measures for firing employees of pre-retirement age. Therefore, companies may now start firing people in their forties and fifties, before their pre-retirement age, as political scientist Fyodor Krasheninnikov put it.
Ninety-two percent of Russians said they were not supporting the reform, according to Romir, a research company. Nearly three million signed a petition against the rise. Social media overflowed with angry jokes about a regional MP who supported the changes and then died at the age of 53, or about a Ministry of Health recommendation to quit smoking while, which no longer makes sense because a big part of the nation is going to die before their pension anyway. The government complaints about the lack of finances were turned into a motto, “Help your motherland — die young!”
After the pension reform announcement, Putin’s trust rating fell from 60 to 48 percent within just a month and his disapproval rating rose from 20 to 32 percent, the highest point in four and a half years.
The Regime Fights Back
The Kremlin tried some propaganda tactics to promote the reform. Social media trolls have been praising it approximately 60,000 times every day. TV-channels are manufacturing stories about Russians who are happy with the retirement age rise. At the same time, the use of the word “reform” has been strictly prohibited in all state-controlled media and for all officials because it reminds of the 1990s, the most financially difficult decade in the modern history of Russia.
The Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin has used the word “solution” instead of the “reform” 22 times within six minutes. “Any solution is a solution. It’s just there’s a solution which you devise for yourself. Such a solution is easier to come up with. And there’s a solution which is to be devised for our citizens. Of course, devising such a solution is very hard,” Mr. Volodin said, as quoted by BBC.
By the end of the summer, the Russian government came up with several ways to address the situation. First, it created a PR-office for the reform. Second, a state-owned TV-channel launched a new show about Putin’s life. In the very first episode, he was described as a person “who loved all the people” and who was “very humane.” Third, opposition leader Navalny was arrested, after he had called for protests on the united regional election day, set for September 9. Finally, Putin gave one of his rare speeches to the nation.
“It is impossible to postpone [the reform]. It would be careless and would lead to rough consequences for the economy and the social area, would be extremely negative for lives of millions of people. It is very clear that the state will have to do it sooner or later. But the later the tougher these solutions will be…We must make difficult uneasy but necessary decision. I ask you to understand,” Putin explained. He also offered several ways to soften the reform, such as to raise women’s retirement age for five years instead of eight.
Political scientist Fyodor Krasheninnikov disagreed.
“There were no concessions. It’s just some kind of a strange trick apparently invented by Kremlin — to say they are going to raise the retirement age for women for eight years and after all give them five. But it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, the retirement age is to be raised. Period,” he said.
Krasheninnikov argued that the speech would not help the Russian leader.
“Putin declared in his speech to the nation that he is the one who is raising the retirement age for five years. He had no choice but to take the responsibility for this tough and unpopular reform. There’s simply no one who has any authority among their electorate but Putin,” Krasheninnikov said.
“I don’t think he wanted to give the speech, but he had to. I do think it will lead to a further decline of his rating: all people who have hoped that he would stop the reform had finally realized it was not going to happen.”