After nearly two decades in power, and historically unshakable approval ratings, it seems like Russian President Vladimir Putin can't do anything to turn Russian voters against him.
But raising the retirement age might do it.
Elections to select the heads of 26 of Russia’s 85 regions on Sunday, Sept. 9, were marred by massive protests –– when Russians of all ages and political affiliations came together to rail against the Kremlin's new retirement proposals.
Police detained more than a thousand people in over 80 towns and cities, according to Russian news portal OVD-Info. The protests were organized by the Anti-Corruption Fund — an organization led by political dissident Alexei Navalny, who currently sits in prison.
Putin’s administration initially proposed the plan to increase the retirement age from 55 to 63 for women and from 60 to 65 for men, on June 14. The announcement was quickly met with harsh criticism by opposition parties within the Russian Duma, two of the biggest Russian labor unions, and citizens. By July, Putin’s approval rating also began to drop, as 89 percent of Russians said they viewed the plan unfavorably.
The blowback wasn’t entirely surprising, considering 31.4 percent of its citizens are over the current retirement age.
Russians have some of the youngest retirement ages in the world and Putin’s administration justified their proposal as a consequence of rising life expectancies –– which has jumped more than 30 years since the current law was set, in 1928, by Joseph Stalin.
But critics claimed that most Russians won’t live long enough to claim retirement benefits under the new system; the life expectancy rate of men is 65 and women is 77 in Russia. Which, according to The World Bank, means that 43 percent of men, under the proposed retirement age, won’t see a pension paycheck.
Few Russians can live off the average monthly pension ($209.00) as is, and many use their pension as a subsidy for their low wages and continue to work in their old age. According to Meduza, 22 percent of pensioners officially continue to work after retirement.
In August, facing growing outrage, Putin — who had previously distanced himself from the discussion about pension reform — softened the initial plan to raise women's retirement age. But he didn’t say anything about men.
Even with this back-peddling, these proposed pension changes, which are still awaiting the second of three rounds of votes in Parliament, have shaved 15 points off Putin’s typically high approval rating — the biggest dip since 2005, when his administration passed legislation that altered the way in which pensioners receive their benefits.
In a country where voters skew older — this problem isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.
VICE News went to Oryol, a relatively small city in the Western Russia, to chat with residents about how they felt about Putin's proposed changes.
This segment originally aired September 10, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.