A gift for Russian opposition

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

As eyes are on football, the Russian government is launching a long due but unpopular reform of the pension system. On 14 June, the Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev signed and sent to the Duma a draft law proposing to raise the pension age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women. The reform will be phased in over a number of years – by 2028 for men and 2034 for women.

The Russian system of pension is an inheritance of the Soviet past. Since 1992, it has been one of the few stable sources of revenue, helping hundreds of thousands of families to overcome job losses, salary delays, losses of savings and collapses of the rouble. In 2005, Putin vowed that that the age of retirement would remain constant as long as he was president. But, as he mentioned during his electoral campaign, the Kremlin now believes that the status quo would be too much of a burden on the federal budget, hampering economic development and reducing opportunities for the young generation.

Pension reform is a political gamble for Putin, hence his decision to announce it by the prime minister, soon after his re-election, when the FIFA Cup would be hampering political demonstrations in the big cities of Russia, and just before the summer dispersal of Russians on holiday.

Indeed, his poll rating dropped immediately from 75 to 69%.


With little reason to believe that parliament will reject the draft proposed by the government, and with pro-Kremlin deputies asked to tone down any criticism, opposition to the draft could only come from the non-systemic opposition and the trade unions.

The minority Russian Confederation of Labour’s petition on the government to reverse its decision was backed by over 2 million votes (half its members) in a few days. The Confederation proposes to get more workers out of the grey economy to increase pension contributions instead of raising the pension age.

For the political opposition, this is a golden opportunity because, according to polls, 90% of Russians oppose the move without hoping for much backing from the traditional parties. Alexei Navalny, just out of prison, submitted applications for protests on 1 July in 20 cities not involved in the World Football Cup. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia plans to stage an all-Russian protest in early September. This sudden adoption of a social agenda lacks credibility. Khodorkovsky is still carrying the image of a wild oligarch. Navalny’s action is linked to the single issue of corruption and a personal vendetta against Putin, whom he is now calling “starik” (the old man), a strange way to express solidarity with pensioners.

The Yabloko party, which developed a social-democrat agenda, is more credible but has been on a losing path for years. It wants to stage a rally in Moscow in early July. Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front, has been refused permission to hold protests on 4 July and calls instead for a petition in favour of a referendum on the pension reform. The signatories are invited to “assemble”(not “protest”) near the Presidential Administration building in central Moscow to submit their demands. The reform is also a test for former Duma deputy Dmitri Gudkov, just elected new chairman of the Civic Platform party.

They will rely on liberal media and think-tanks to spread their arguments that the reform will not affect the “privileged” people but only ordinary ones paying not for the future generation, but for foreign adventures (Syria, Ukraine).

Kremlin manœuvrability

Putin “is not poring over his ratings,” declared its spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. But all observers admit that the reform is unpopular and that protests are inevitable. Among the problems confronting the Kremlin, two are most challenging. First, it can accept concessions, for instance “technical” modifications to the draft, but dropping the reform is out. That would be a personal defeat for Putin, reinforce the gap between reformists and liberals in his government, and be a setback in the reforms he announced during his electoral campaign.

The second problem is planning. It is very difficulty to predict the level of potential mobilisation depending of sectors and regions. Local authorities will be divided between wanting to appease their voters and thinking to serve the Kremlin expectations.

This has led many Russian analysts to expect that the government will develop a public information campaign, dynamic instead of being defensive or smelling propaganda, with an accent on pedagogy and references to collective good.

Bearing in mind the inevitability of protests and their political risks, one can guess that the Kremlin will try not to suppress, but to channeled them. For instance, by letting the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia, known for its loyalty to the authorities, organise protests as a way to allow an expression of popular discontent without paralysing the economy. That will also cut the grass under the feet of Navalny and others who can then be accused of everything – from being sold to the West for underdoing economic revival to attempting to seed divisions within the Russian society. It can also allow the Communist party to hold some rallies, especially in the regions, bearing in mind that its members are disciplined and not looking for confrontation with the police.

Generally speaking, the Kremlin knows too well that the vast majority of the population is very suspicious of non systemic initiatives which they see as looking for confrontation and chaos.

The West dilemma

If the Kremlin is walking on a tight rope, the West is confronted with its own dilemma. Even those ready to side with the devil to annoy Putin are hardly ready to side with the only forces able to mobilise people for social reasons – the Communist party and other leftist parties.

They are also cautious of trade unions – and cannot forget that throughout the world, international organisations promote pension reforms which are no more popular in Western countries than in Russia.

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