Russians protest pension reform as Putin popularity slides

Moscow (AFP) –


Several thousand people protested Sunday across Russia against a hugely unpopular government decision to hike the pension age that has led to a record slump in President Vladimir Putin's approval ratings.

Rallying in dozens of cities from the far east and Siberia to central and southern Russia, many urged Putin to oust the government, while some called on the Kremlin leader himself to "retire."

Both Kremlin-friendly trade unions and political parties and Putin's top critic Alexei Navalny organised the rallies, in a rare show of unity and widespread public opposition to the government proposal.

"Croak before retirement -- help the budget," read one placard, seen on pictures shared on social media.

"I will spend my first pension to buy a coffin if I live long enough," said another.

Given Russians' low life expectancy, many will not live long enough to receive a state pension.

Analysts say that growing popular discontent over the reform amid plunging living standards may present the most serious challenge to Putin during his nearly 20 years in power.

- 'Clothes off our back' -

Protesters rallied in the far-eastern cities of Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk-on-Amur, the Siberian cities of Omsk and Tomsk and Murmansk in the north, among other places.

Navalny said more than 3,000 people protested in Omsk alone, tweeting a picture of a city square flooded with people.

The demonstrations drew people from all sides of the political spectrum including Navalny's supporters, Communists and radical nationalists.

Mass rallies will not take place in Moscow and other cities hosting the World Cup where protests are banned.

But one young Russian managed to evade police, take his clothes off and stage a one-man protest on Moscow's Red Square, his head turned in the Kremlin's direction.

"They even took the clothes off our back," read a sign he held to cover himself.

The 28-year-old protester, Vyacheslav Shumsky, said on radio he wanted to draw public attention to a raft of unpopular government measures including the pension reform "so that we start doing something".

- 'Common robbery' -

"Let's be honest: the state pension hike masterminded by Putin and (Prime Minister Dmitry) Medvedev is a true crime," Navalny said on Instagram ahead of the rallies.

"It is common robbery of tens of millions of people under the guise of 'much-needed reform.'"

The authorities have proposed raising the pension age to 65 for men and 63 for women, which would be the first such increase in nearly 90 years.

A legacy of the USSR, Russia's retirement age is currently among the lowest in the world.

The government says the pension age increase is unavoidable as the current system represents a growing weight for the cash-strapped federal budget.

To sweeten the pill, it announced the measures on June 14, the day the World Cup kicked off in Russia.

More than 2.5 million people have signed a petition against the proposal.

Unlike in Western democracies, pensions in Russia are meagre and many have to work past their state pension age to survive, others rely on financial help from their children.

More than 80 percent of Russians are against the pension hike as many see early retirement as a compensation for social injustice in the country.

According to the VTsIOM state pollster, the Kremlin leader's approval ratings slumped by a record 14 percentage points in the space of nearly two weeks -- to 64 percent on June 24 from 78 percent on June 14.

The last time Putin's approval ratings were so low was in January 2014, just months before his popularity skyrocketed following the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.