MOSCOW – A deeply unpopular government plan to raise retirement ages in Russia for the first time in 90 years has created an unusual schism within President Vladimir Putin’s typically monolithic ruling party.
The overhaul, which the government said is necessary to cope with a shrinking workforce and a growing retiree population, has touched off street protests in more than 150 cities and divided the party, United Russia, usually known for its lockstep unity.
The turbulence poses no serious threat to Putin, whose approval rating slipped in late June but has since begun to recover. Analysts said, however, that the plan tests how far Putin can go in tweaking the terms of an implicit bargain at the core of his rule: a surrender of political freedoms in exchange for economic stability and national pride.
Russians have among the earliest retirement ages in the world, unchanged since they were set by the Soviet Union in 1928, early in the rule of Josef Stalin. Men qualify for pensions at 60 and women at 55, and in some industries and regions women can retire at 50.
The pension overhaul, which has passed one of three votes in Parliament, would raise the retirement ages to 65 for men and 63 for women.
In a poll conducted in early July by the Levada Center, an independent polling organization, 89 percent of Russians said they viewed the plan unfavorably, an unusually high level of dissent for a measure backed by the ruling party.
Most economists said the overhaul is overdue, given lackluster economic growth and a rising retiree population. It is also a tacit admission by the Kremlin that Western sanctions and low commodity prices are making it increasingly difficult for the Kremlin to retain public support simply by spending profits from oil and gas exports.
Unlike protests organized by the opposition politician Alexei Navalny, which have rallied mostly young people, the pension protests have brought older Russians, often seen as Putin’s base, into the streets.
The crowds have been small but angry. One woman protesting in Tver said, “In China, thieving officials are taken into the street and shot, and their property confiscated. We want that, too.” Some in the crowd yelled: “Let Putin live on a pension!”
Putin has sought to distance himself from the overhaul, saying that legislators were responsible for drafting the law and that he will review it when it passes Parliament.