MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin took to national TV on Wednesday with a promise to soften the government's plan to raise the retirement age, even as he sought to convince Russians that painful changes remain necessary to put the economy on more solid footing.
Putin's dominance over Russian politics, the Kremlin fears the consequences of public discontent.
The original proposal to overhaul the pension system, first announced by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev just kicked the soccer World Cup off here in June, would have been retiring to 65 and 60 for men and women. But polls showed the move was deeply unpopular and it sparked protests across the country.
In Wednesday's address, Putin said he would move to the age of 60.
"Putin said, referring to the proposed eight- year increase for women.
At the same time, Putin used his half-hour-long remarks to "In our country, there is a special caring attitude to women." argue that Russia's low birthrate and growing life expectancy meant that the country's pension system – largely unchanged from Soviet times – needs to evolve.
It is a rare case in which Putin – despite his vast influence on politics, the security apparatus and the news media – turned directly to the public to defend an unpopular measure. And it underscored the challenges that Russia's lackluster economic growth, undermined further by Western sanctions, poses to Putin's rule.
"It's natural that all of this is painfully perceived by many people. I interpret this as well as share this concern, "Putin said, speaking directly to the camera from a wood-paneled office, flanked by Russian flags, a large telephone and a leather binder.
After describing what he said would be the most unsustainable He went on to say, "Aim of action now or taking various cosmetic measures would be irresponsible and dishonest with respect to both our country and our children."
Putin's approval ratings dropped to 67 percent in July from 79 percent in May, according to the independent Levada Center. Almost 90 percent of Russians opposed the pension overhaul, the pollster found. Opposition politicians seized on the plan to galvanize their supporters.
Activist Alexei Navalny, who called for nationwide protests coinciding with Russia's regional elections Sept. 9, was sentenced to 30 days in jail on Monday. Analysts said the move to put Navalny behind bars, as punishment for his organizing protests in January, appeared designed to keep the prominent opposition leaders off the streets for the demonstrations opposing the pension overhaul.
Russia's shaky economy represents more treacherous ground for Putin at home than does his foreign policy. The annexation of the Ukrainian Peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and the ensuing conflict with the West has allowed Putin to position himself as a defender of the Russian people who is above the fray of daily politics. Russia's domestic malaise – and Putin's approval rating dropped to a level just before the annexation of Crimea.
Putin has tried to cast himself as a father of the nation, "said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. "Because of the pension reform, he stopped being only a symbol.