Facing protests and a noticeable dip in his approval ratings, Russian president Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday he was cutting a proposed retirement age for women from 63 to 60 years as he watered down draft legislation to reform the pensions system which has hurt his popularity and stirred protests.
In a TV address, Putin, who once promised to never raise the retirement age, took responsibility for the first time for the reforms which he said were needed to protect state finances, ensure stability in society and safeguard national security.
Proposed reforms put forward by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's government had envisaged raising the retirement age to 65 from 60 for men and to 63 from 55 for women.
The issue has proved politically sensitive for Putin, who was re-elected in March, and prompted protests across Russia after it was announced on 14 June, the day Russia played the first match of its soccer World Cup.
Opinion polls show that around 90 percent of the population oppose the government's original proposals. The issue contributed to driving Putin's popularity rating down to 67 from 80 percent earlier this year, according to the Levada Centre pollster, its lowest since before Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.
In his TV address, Putin put his name to changes to the pensions system, but he said he was softening parts of the reform, including cutting the proposed retirement age for women by three years to 60.
"The demographic development and labour market trends and an objective analysis of the situation show that we can't put this off any longer," said Putin. "But our decisions must be fair, balanced and absolutely take into account people's interests."
"That's why I am proposing a raft of measures that will allow us to soften the decisions taken as much as possible."
"We have a special, caring attitude to women in our country," he added, explaining his move to soften the blow for women.
Putin's spokesman has said the Russian leader is unfazed by fluctuations in his popularity but had decided to act on the pensions question because of its importance.
Having highlighted that Russia currently spends 20 billion roubles ($293.13 million) a day to pay pensions, Putin outlined other specific change proposals to the pension system related to the different groups of Russians, such as women with several children, and others.
Adjustments to the pension reform proposed by Putin would cost the state budget a around 500 billion roubles over the next six years and would "require adjustments to ... budget plans," Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said.
Older Russians have seen their pensions rise steadily under Putin and have been among his staunchest supporters, enjoying the stability they believe he has brought to the economy. But many of those who oppose an increase in the retirement age question whether they would live long enough to claim their money.
In Russia, the average life expectancy is 67 for men and 78 for women.
Though the proposed changes bring Russia into line with most other countries, many families, especially in rural areas and small towns, are worried that their household income will take a serious hit at a time when the young often struggle to find a stable job.
"This reform will hit hard people in provincial towns and in villages," said Arseny Radin, a Moscow-based engineer originally from the Vladimir region about 200 kilometres (120 miles) northeast of the capital.
Radin said his father, who would be retiring in a few years if not for the planned reforms, must travel to Moscow for work "because there are no jobs in provincial towns."
Asked about Putin's proposal to incentivise employers to hire older workers, Radin said: "What jobs are we talking about and what jobs are going to be kept for those people who are close to the retirement age?"
'Threat to stability'
In his speech, Putin voiced other suggestions aimed at softening the blow, including an idea to keep benefits such as tax breaks for seniors even before they reach retirement age.
Although Putin is famous for his annual marathon call-in TV shows in which he talks directly to ordinary Russians via video link, he rarely gives televised speeches to the nation. For example, he did not give a nationally televised address in 2014 when Russia moved to send troops to Crimea and eventually annex the territory from Ukraine.
For years, Putin has avoided discussing the idea of raising the pension age, a move long advocated by his economic advisers.
It was not immediately clear if Putin's intervention would be enough to defuse public anger. But state television, the main source of news for most Russians, presented his intervention in a positive light, as did politicians from the ruling United Russia party.
Raising the retirement age would allow the government to pay out bigger pensions, whose current size he described as modest. The government says the average monthly pension will be 14,414 roubles ($212) by the end of the year.
Putin said the draft legislation, which is going through the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, would be amended to reflect his own ideas in the near future.
He listed several ways of raising money to fund the current pension system in order to delay reform, but said all of them would only work in the short term. Further out, they would end up destroying the economy, which has been battered by years of Western sanctions.
"In the long term, if we hesitate now, it could threaten stability in society and hence national security," said Putin.
Putin's political opponents, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, have tried to tap into public anger over the proposed changes by organising protests.
A court sentenced Navalny to 30 days in jail on Monday after convicting him of breaking public protest laws, a move he said was illegal and aimed at stopping him leading a rally against pension reform next month.
With inputs from Reuters and AP
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Updated Date: Aug 30, 2018 09:05:12 IST