Putin softens raising of retirement age in rare TV address

What good is it being an autocrat if you can’t set policy without hearing complaints? The Associated Press reports that Vladimir Putin has been forced to tone down changes made to a pension reform package after a backlash that has sent his approval numbers below 70% for the first time in years.

Facing protests and a noticeable dip in his approval ratings, President Vladimir Putin made rare concessions Wednesday to an unpopular pension reform package that increased the retirement age for Russians.

The televised address marked an extraordinary occasion when Putin apparently felt compelled to explain a major policy decision to the public, reflecting the contentious nature of the retirement reforms.

The general idea of increasing the retirement age was justified because of Russia’s economy and demographic trends and “cannot be put off any longer,” Putin said.

Without such a move, Russia’s pension system “would crack and eventually collapse,” he said, adding: “I’m asking you to be understanding of this.”

The plan would raise the age of retirement by one year each year, from the current 60 to 65 for men. The retirement age for women was set to go up from 55 to 63 but Putin dialed that back so it will only increase from 55 to 60. Why is the retirement age higher for men? Putin said, “In our country, we treat women in a special, caring way.” In any case, Putin apparently tried to ignore the issue but finally addressed it because it was driving his numbers down:

Putin has refrained from commenting on the subject for weeks, while a widespread outcry over the move began emerging. Alexei Navalny, one of Putin’s biggest opponents, has called for nationwide demonstrations about it on Sept. 9, but on Monday, he was jailed for 30 days over an unsanctioned protest seven months earlier.

The pension proposals have affected Putin’s approval ratings, which have dropped from 80 percent to under 70 percent — his lowest since before the Crimea annexation.

The BBC notes that there have been street protests against the change:

Tens of thousands have rallied across Russia in recent weeks.

“Help the state, die before your pension,” read one home-made placard in the Siberian city of Omsk in early July, where about 3,000 people turned out.

“The government must go,” read another.

Unusually for Russia, protesters have been from all sides of the political debate.

Communist Party red flags and nationalist banners flew side by side, and opposition supporters joined in too.

The life expectancy for men in Russia is 66. Here’s a report from France 24 on why opposition to the change was so strong.