Just a few years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin looked deep into a television camera and promised Russians that he’d never, ever raise their retirement age.
“I am opposed to raising the retirement age,” Putin said in 2005, waving his forefinger decisively. “As long as I am president, such a decision will not be made.”
On October 3rd, he broke that promise — unleashing a wave of discontent across Russia that some observers are calling one of the biggest domestic political challenges the Russian leader has ever faced. Though an initial round of street protests and arrests have subsided, the uproar has left lingering effects on Putin’s poll numbers. And with no apparent plan to repair the damage, things could get worse, analysts told VICE News.
“I think this is catastrophic for Putin,” Anders Aslund, a former economic advisor to Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, told VICE News. “He’s in a big hole.”
While no one expects average Russians to storm the Kremlin anytime soon, the backlash has battered Putin’s public image as he enters his second decade in power. The share of Russians who say they “trust” Putin has plummeted 20 points over just a few months to 39 percent, according to a new poll by Russia’s most-respected polling agency, the Levada Center.
Putin’s popularity has, in the past, been buttressed by periods of strong economic growth, and by decisive action in national security crises. But there are reasons to think that both those avenues may be closed to him this time, analysts said.
Months after announcing the plan that spurred protests in dozens of cities, Putin finally signed a bill to gradually raise the retirement age for men from 60 to 65, and for women from 55 to 63. Russians oppose the bill by a factor of 9-to-1, according to recent polls.
The change has been widely interpreted as unfairly targeting the poor and powerless in a country with a massive income inequality, analysts said.
The retirement age increase effectively transfers almost a full percentage point of the Russia’s economy away from the country’s most impoverished citizens and hands it over to the wealthiest, according Aslund.
“This pension reform takes 0.8 percent of GDP away from the poor, and give it to the rich,” Aslund said. “This is big money.”
Russia’s economy has been recovering lately thanks to higher prices for the country’s key export, crude oil, but growth remains sluggish and poverty widespread. Putin was re-elected to a fourth presidential term earlier this year while promising to spur economic growth. But a serious economic plan has yet to emerge, analysts said.
The Kremlin’s response to public discontent has, instead, largely amounted to a crackdown on the demonstrators, said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“They go to the old tools, and the oldest tool is to threaten protesters,” Oliker said. “Meanwhile, the plan to grow the economy is pretty much to hope that oil prices keep going up.”
“The problem, foremost, is that there may be no other means of raising the approval rating besides fresh military adventures abroad.”
Further stoking anger among Russia's classes is the relative selectivity of the new cutbacks. Select members of the state security services, for example, were exempt from the higher retirement age, including the police, pointed out Seva Gunitsky, associate professor at the University of Toronto.
“The police who were arresting the protestors can retire at 45,” Gunitsky said. “So they have no sympathy for the people they’re arresting.”
Amid the outrage, Putin’s overall popularity slid 15 points to 67 percent, the latest Levada figures show.
While that may be high for any American president, it’s a relatively poor showing by Putin’s famously atmospheric standards — and a significant decrease from the 82 percent approval he enjoyed shortly before the new policy was announced.
FOREIGN POLICY FALLBACK
More than once in the past, Putin’s popularity has surged in the wake of his deft handling of a national security crisis or perceived foreign policy victories.
“The problem, foremost, is that there may be no other means of raising the approval rating besides fresh military adventures abroad,” said Stepan Goncharov, a senior researcher for the Levada Center.
But Putin’s ability to rally public support behind an expansive global outlook may be waning, following three years of Russian involvement in Syria’s civil war, mounting economic sanctions from the U.S. and other foreign tensions.
In March 2016, 22 percent of Russians cited foreign policy among Putin’s top strengths, according another Levada poll. By last July, that number had fallen to 16 percent.
Putin’s popularity has now slid to a level not seen since Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in early 2014, an event that booster his numbers and tapped into Russia's patriotic streak.
Russians have long admired Putin for rebuilding Russia’s global prominence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, including in cases where he’s stood up to the West, as in Crimea.
But war-weariness in Syria and the prospect of even more sanctions may provide an incentive for Putin to turn towards diplomacy instead of military conflict or spycraft to pursue Russian interests abroad, said David Szakonyi, a professor at George Washington University and expert on Russian politics.
“I see a higher chance of Russia coming to the bargaining table,” Szakonyi said.
Cover image: Russian President Vladimir Putin looks out of the window of a helicopter as he travels to the Rassvet agricultural company in Stavropol region, Russia October 9, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters