Russians protest as Duma debates unpopular pension reform

Moscow (AFP) –


Around 200 people protested outside the Russian parliament on Thursday ahead of a vote on a hugely unpopular government proposal to raise the pension age to 65 for men and 63 for women.

The planned pension age hike, a first in nearly 90 years, has led to rare public anger across the country and a record slump in President Vladimir Putin's approval ratings.

"We are living quite badly, people's patience is running out," said 54-year-old accountant Natalya.

"We are sick of bearing this."

"This is a vile, inhumane law for Russian citizens," said Valery Rashkin, one of the many Communist MPs who came out to support the protesters.

Minister for Social Affairs Maxim Topilin defended the law in a presentation in the Duma, saying Russia's current pension system was rooted in the 1930s when life expectancy was "completely different."

"Times are changing. The economy is changing," Topilin said. "We cannot be stuck in the 1930s."

Russia currently has one of the lowest pension ages in the world, at 55 for women and 60 for men.

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

On Wednesday, the liberal daily Vedomosti reported MPs were "advised" not to criticise Putin -- who has distanced himself from the bill -- during the debate.

But some MPs from the Communist Party, which occasionally challenges the government on social issues but supports the Kremlin on the whole, demanded Putin take a position on the law.

"This is one of the most important laws in the last 14 years, it cannot be debated without such an important person in our political life," said Communist MP Oleg Smolin.

He went on to quote Putin, who famously said in 2005 that there will be no pension age hike in Russia "while I am president."

According to a recent poll, over 80 percent of Russians are against the reform. More than 2.5 million people have signed a petition against it.

Rallies against the reform were held across the country at the start of the month and a protest on Wednesday evening in Moscow gathered at least a thousand people.

Russian life expectancy is low for a developed country, at about 65 years for men and 76 years for women.