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Putin’s Monolithic Party Shows Cracks Over Pension Cutbacks

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.

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Lincoln Pigman
, New York Times

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 says 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 lock step unity.

The turbulence poses no serious threat to Putin, whose approval rating slipped in late June but has since begun to recover. Analysts say, however, that the plan tests how farPutin 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 as young as 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 say the overhaul is long 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 against corruption 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, a provincial city north of Moscow, suggested Russia follow China’s example in dealing with corrupt bureaucrats: “In China, thieving officials are taken into the street and shot, and their property confiscated,” she said. “We want that, too.”

Some in the crowd yelled out an alternative punishment: “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.

Under pressure from the public, some party members have defied warnings from leaders that criticism of the plan will not be tolerated.

A senior lawmaker, Sergei Zheleznyak, was forced to resign as deputy secretary of the party after skipping the first vote on the bill. Party members have asked NatalyaPoklonskaya, a nationalist who broke with her party by voting against the reform bill, to resign from Parliament.

Their dissent is rare in a party that Kirill Martynov, political editor of the liberal daily Novaya Gazeta, described as Russia’s “praetorian guard of stability.”

A Just Russia and the Communist Party, leftist parties represented in Parliament, are also capitalizing on the pension crisis. Both have pushed for a popular referendum on the pension overhaul, a vote that would most likely result in its rejection by the general public. The Central Election Commission has tentatively approved the idea, surprising many analysts who expected the government to prevent a referendum.

Kremlinologists say that Putin himself may eventually join the ranks of the bill’s critics and modify it, presenting himself as the protector of ordinary citizens. Dmitri Travin, research director at the Center for Modernization Studies, told weekly newspaper Sobesednik that doing so would allow Putin to appear as “a kind uncle.”

A recent poll showed that most Russians think he will either soften the plan or veto it.

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