Russia′s protest spirit breaks as pension law passes | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 27.09.2018
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Russia's protest spirit breaks as pension law passes

Russians aren't happy that the lower house of parliament has passed a bill backed by Vladimir Putin raising the retirement age. But while cries of protest filled the streets before, outrage has faded to resignation.

The streets around the State Duma building in the center of Moscow may have been quiet, but the vote taking place inside has shaken up the country for months.  On Thursday Russia's lower house of parliament voted to adopt a third and final reading of a pension bill that will gradually raise the retirement age by five years to 60 for women and 65 for men.

The measure drew mass protests across Russia and across the political spectrum, with many protesters arguing that under the new law, people simply won't live until their retirement. After all, average life expectancy in Russia is 66 for men and 77 for women.

The pension reform plan also hit President Vladimir Putin's approval rating, who once promised he would never raise the retirement age. He is expected to sign off on the bill once it passes the upper house.

Unhappy but resigned

The reform remains hugely unpopular: Around 85 percent of people are against the pension age hike. But on the day of the Duma's final vote on the bill, many in Moscow told DW they are resigned to the plan.

"If this is the only way out, then we have to help the government," Marina, a middle-aged woman in a red felt coat, explains stoically. "I am prepared to do that, even though I am close to the pension age. I am a teacher. I will work longer if need be."

In the matter-of-fact tone of an analyst, Maksim, a young man in his twenties, says the pension bill "is a necessary thing" and the only possible decision due to Russia's low birthrate.

A survey published Thursday by the independent polling agency Levada Center shows that this sense of resignation over the unpopular reform is widespread — and new. Currently only 35 percent of Russians would be prepared to protest against the age hike, while in August, 53 percent would have been willing to take to the streets to oppose the measure. 

People watch on a smartphone screen as Vladimir Putin addresses the Russian public about the pension reform on state TV (picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Zemlianichenko)

In August, Putin came out publically in support of the pension reform on state TV

Putin's word is final

According to political analyst and former Putin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov, President Putin may be a key factor in changing attitudes. At the end of August, the Russian president came out in support of the unpopular reform in a television address. Though he softened the initial proposals, Putin said the reform "really couldn't be postponed any longer" and argued it was necessary to guarantee stability for Russia's future.

"Putin's address showed that the authorities aren't willing to budge. People finally understood that the reforms are unavoidable," Gallyamov explains. "If before they thought that protesting makes sense, this [speech] made them understand that protesting won't achieve anything."

The analyst adds that this shift doesn't mean that people are "happier" about the upcoming reform, however. In fact, he says Putin "paid for" people accepting the measure with a drop in his approval ratings.

Ilya Grashchenkov, a  Russian national policy expert who heads the Russian Center for Regional Political Development, also thinks that people's increased reluctance to protest shows they've come to accept the pension reform as necessary. Grashchenkov highlights that roughly half of the population didn't initially support the pension reform — including current pensioners.

"But they have been told that all these measures are aimed at helping them, and that continuing to pay people's pensions and increasing those payments won't be possible without this reform. And that made them loyal to the government," the expert says.

Supporters of left-wing political parties in Moscow hold a red banner reading Against pension genocide during a rally against the pension reform (Reuters/M. Shemetov )

Russia's popular Communist Party has strongly opposed the pension reform

The danger of protests

But Grashchenkov also has another explanation for the fact that Russian people are now less prepared to take to the streets over their pensions. He says people generally "mistrust demonstrations as a form of public politics." Initial anger over the reform spilled onto the streets, but now, he argues, people are showing it at the ballot box instead, by "refusing to support the government." In local governor elections that took place on September 9, Putin's ruling United Russia party failed to win the polls in four regions. For Russian political standards, the results were a political earthquake

On the streets of Moscow, people feel strongly that protests are not a good way to express their political anger. Protests can be dangerous, people say. Leaning on her cane, one older woman explains: "People should talk and write more, but not take to the streets. I am not a fan of these mass movements. They can lead to unrest. And no one needs that."

An electronic screen shows the results of the final vote on the pension reform bill at the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament (Reuters/S. Karpukhin)

Having passed the Duma, the pension will go to Russia's upper house of parliament

Out of touch?

Outside the Duma, the sense of resignation seems to extend beyond the one pension reform bill.  For some, it seems, the measure has confirmed their sense that nearly thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the government can no longer be relied upon to take care of them.

"It's hard to talk about it without tears coming to my eyes. The government has had enough of us," a 55-year-old woman tells DW. Peering through thick-rimmed pink glasses, she adds: "Russia has gas and oil, but look how we are living. Maybe Putin is good — maybe he just doesn't see anything. They don't live here. They just drive around in their black cars," she says about Russia's politicians. "They don't see us. And maybe they don't want to see us."

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