Skip to main content

Putin and Pension Reform

I am a recent Graduate of Political Science at Clemson University. I am an avid student of politics and history.

putin-and-pension-reform

Background

Can Putin Survive Backlash to Pension Cuts and VAT Raise?

The Russian government has enacted pension reform by raising the retirement age for men from sixty to sixty-five and for women from fifty-five to sixty-three. This is very unpopular amongst Russian citizens. The Russian government has also added a higher value added tax raising it from 18% to 20%. This might not seem like much; however, it adds up overtime and the cost are borne by the average Russian consumer. This pension reform is not unique to Russia as similar reforms have fueled protests in France. Citizens usually never accept cuts to pensions as they have gotten used to them and rely on them. These factors have contributed to Putin’s approval rating dropping tremendously since these reforms were instituted in 2018. His approval rating had flown up to near 90 % after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, but as of today it is approximately 60%. The problem Putin is facing is that citizens that have been critical of him are now being joined by long standing supporters who no longer support him after the pension reforms and VAT raise. This means that the coalition against Putin is growing, and his disapproval rating could reach levels never seen before. It is obvious this tax raise and the pension reforms have led to this decline in approval ratings. Putin will most likely not be able to survive these reforms. This could prove too burdensome for the Russian people. As the economy and society destabilizes, he will lose the biggest argument for the need of his presidency. That he has done a good of job of saving Russia after the chaos of the 1990’s and has acted as a stabilizing force in a country full of chaos. The 2018 reforms have led to protests and threaten the narrative of the Putin presidency. If Putin can maintain support in the Duma after 2021, he might be able to stay in power, but voters will decide if that is the case. In conclusion, Putin has to enact major reforms to the Russian system in order to maintain support amongst the Russian people after the pension changes and VAT hike. If he does not, he will fall out of power.



Losing Previous Supporters

The issue of pension reform is particularly damaging to Putin because since he was elected in 2000, he has portrayed himself as a supporter of the common man. This reform has brought distrust among Russian citizens and has contributed to his drop in approval rating. Putin has skillfully gotten Russians to support him because Russia is doing much better economically than it was before he came to power. Even if quality of life is not as high as it is in America or Europe it is as high as it has ever been in Russia under Putin. The current protests are eroding popular support of Putin as common people begin to question him like they previously never have. One concern of Russian citizens is that is that most people will not live to the new retirement age or will not live long past it. An article on Al Jazeera points out that “According to the World Health Organization, Russian men have an average life expectancy of 66 years, while for women the figure is 77. Critics say in some regions, the new retirement age would exceed life expectancy.” (Thousands protest against pension law despite Putin's rollback). This is obviously a major concern as this sudden change may result in many Russians not being able to qualify for their pensions as their life expectancies are not much longer than the new retirement ages. This is a specific concern for men as the majority of whom may never live to the new retirement age. Whereas women have 14 years between life expectancy and the new retirement age. It is understandable to see why protests are happening as the common man has begun to lose faith in Putin as the programs that provided stability are getting reformed. People are beginning to ask, “was this change made so that most people would die before they could receive the pension in order to save money?” this mistrust of Putin is unprecedented, and he has to handle it or lose control. One of the difficult things Putin has to contend with is the popularity of the pension program. An article on CBS said this on the issue, “Russia's pensioners have seen their incomes rising steadily under Putin and have been one of the president's staunchest supporters.” (Putin scales back pension reform plan as approval rating dips). This is why Putin is facing such backlash, pensions are universally popular. Many Russians were very close to the retirement age, and this has blindsided many who now have to work for years longer than they expected. So now Putin has a group of people who never opposed him that might be willing to join the opposition. The question is willing this new opposition seek to curb Putin’s power by voting against him in the State Duma or will they just seek to protest through previous methods that have not worked in the past.

United Russia Party Major Losses

There has not been a protest of the same scale as the 2011 protests to Parliamentary elections in which 25,000 Russians gathered in protest of Putin. Nevertheless, opposition amongst Russians does still exist. Despite the public backlash, Putin still has supermajority support in the Duma since the United Russia party won 344 out of 450 seats in 2016. This control lasts until September 2024, and this could be when the opposition seeks to manifest change in the State Duma in order to oppose Putin further. Mass public protest in Russia did not happen after the 2016 Duma elections despite evidence of ballot stuffing. Ben Noble of the Washington Post wrote this about the 2016 election, “Videos of ballot stuffing were widely shared on the day of voting. And the Russian election monitoring organization, Golos, produced a “map of violations,” recording reports of electoral infringements, both in Russia and abroad.” (Putin just won a supermajority in the Duma. That matters). Russians know that fraud happened in this election but did not react the same as they did in 2011. This either means Russians are disinterested in politics or do not feel their protesting will change any of the corruption that exists when voting. An article by the Guardian pointed out backlash to the Pro-Putin United Russia Party at the 2018 pension reform protests, “A large banner reading “We do not trust United Russia”, Putin’s ruling party, was held up by the crowd and featured a drawing of a red fist punching the white polar bear logo of Putin’s party.” (Thousands protest in Russia against plans to hike pension age). This shows that Russians were upset by the supermajority win in the 2016 election, even though they did not go to the streets in protest after that election. The opposition can move to different avenues of protest but trying to change the corruption in voting seems to not be working. This is beneficial to Putin as disinterest in voting or calling out corruption will most likely allow him to maintain control and power. The battle for Putin’s opposition will be in changing this dynamic where Putin has control of the government and elections.

Coronavirus and Approval Rating

The recent outbreak of Coronavirus worldwide has left all world leaders scrambling to contain it, Putin included. According to a recent survey, citizens are gaining back trust in Putin. This survey of Russians showed that his approval rating is rising during the Coronavirus pandemic, “On March 23-29, Putin’s approval rating was at 65.7%. Asked directly about trust towards the current head of state 71.1% of the respondents said "yes."” (Putin’s approval, trust ratings rise after his address to nation over COVID-19). That approval rating jump is significant, but it was from a single survey. Regardless, this is good news for Putin as he can now bolster up the public perception of himself as a leader who is in control. Again, as mentioned earlier, Russians fear returning to the chaotic times of the 1990’s. This is one of Putin’s biggest appeals. With the end date of this pandemic unknown and as the world waits for a vaccine, he can posture himself again as a powerful leader who calms chaos. Obviously, this is easier said than done as this pandemic is out of the control of anyone. Feigning control might backfire if the death toll in Russia rises. This could be an opportunity for his opposition to change the perception amongst Russians of Putin if the fallout hurts them tremendously. The problem with this approach is that people are willing to be sympathetic to Putin as this pandemic is perceived by many Russians as outside of his control. Russians know that this disease is worldwide so blaming Putin for what is happening all over the world is very difficult. So, in many ways this pandemic can help Putin and might allow him to maintain control.

Could a Situation Like Crimea Occur Again?

Putin can try to do a similar thing today that he did in 2014 when he annexed Crimea. This move caused Putin’s approval rating to go from 63 percent all the way to 85 percent which is the highest it has ever been. This was after the 2008 financial crisis which saw Putin’s approval rating tank year after year. The Crimea annexation gained him instant near total approval. This means that Putin could be trying to make a move with another area that is ethnically Russian but is no longer apart of the country. This has left post-Soviet countries in a state of fear particularly Belarus and Estonia. Damien McGuiness of BBC said this about Estonia’s program to defend against Russian attacks, “That's why Estonia's government has now set up a voluntary Cyber Defence Unit. Since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Estonian Defence League has been much reported on by the international press: at weekends 25,000 volunteers don fatigues and head to the forests to learn how to shoot. Less well known is the shadowy Cyber Defence Unit.”(How a cyber attack transformed Estonia). Post-soviet states were forced to panic after the annexation of Crimea as they saw the move as a direct threat to their sovereignty. Nearly one third of Estonia’s population is Russian. This is different than Crimea, where over half the population was ethnically Russian, but it still makes Estonians worried they could be annexed. Out of all the post-Soviet states it is one of the smallest with a population over a million. Putin can attempt to maneuver another annexation but after Crimea it would be extremely hard to pull off as surrounding countries now know what Russia is doing. The element of surprise allowed for the annexation in 2014 and simply put that does not exist anymore.

Loss of a Trusty Partner: Medvedev

Lastly, Putin has battled against his opposition with Prime Minister and President Medvedev alongside him as they served in tandem. Switching places when their respective term limits would run out. Unfortunately for Putin, the January resignation forced him to have to make constitutional changes in order to stay in power past 2024. As mentioned earlier, this was already approved by the Russian parliament and is awaiting a postponed plebiscite. This also shows Putin might not have someone he trusts enough to do what he did with Medvedev for years. He may be running out of allies and thus have to seek constitutional change to stay in power. The resignation came unexpectedly and forced Putin to do something he was previously unwilling to do which is change the constitution. Basically, this means Putin is in a more vulnerable position to lose power. The tandem was very powerful because Medvedev was well liked and was able to deal with people who did not want to deal with Putin. The tandem essentially guaranteed Putin would be in power indefinitely. It is a big loss for Putin to lose someone he trusts and had worked together with for years. Although they did have disagreements they usually agreed and ran the country together. This resignation after the backlash to the 2018 reforms puts Putin in a bad situation. He no longer has his close friend next to him while dealing with these issues and his number of allies in government may be dwindling. Medvedev was still in power when the pension reforms were instituted, and this could mean he decided to step down specifically because of the backlash.

Conclusion

After maintaining popularity throughout his presidency and reaching peaks of 90 percent approval rating in 2014, Vladimir Putin will lose approval amongst most Russian citizens. Pensioners were the strongest supporters of Putin before these changes, and now he will have to deal with opposition who used to be his supporters. The benefits were good enough to have many overlook the lack of democracy in Russia. Now that conditions have deteriorated for many they will no longer back a president they do not feel supports them. His opposition has existed since he began running the country, but now they are bigger than they ever previously were. This means Putin will have to win a battle he never knew was coming. The 2018 protests were the biggest since 2011 and signify a major change in Russia. Russians are very upset by the changes to the societal welfare programs that they believed were their safety net when they retired. They care more about this then election fraud or almost anything else that is why the protest is different than those of the past. Usually after a corrupt election there is a minor protest but after a while Russians have to return to regular life. The pension reforms and VAT raises heavily impacted the Russian people which makes them immensely unpopular. Specifically, people who are almost at the retirement age are being most drastically affected. As they never planned for this change to occur, this new group of opposition is growing in power threatens Putin’s control and his approval rating . In conclusion, Putin will most likely fall out of power or lose significant support due to Pension reform and the VAT hikes.

Article from April 2020

Article was written at the beginning of the Coronavirus Pandemic. The recent invasion of Ukraine relates to this article tremendously.

Scroll to Continue

Sources

Works Cited

Jazeera, Al. “Thousands Protest against Pension Law despite Putin's Rollback.” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 2 Sept. 2018, www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/09/thousands-protest-pension-law-putin-rollback-180902164415418.html.

Welle, Deutsche. “Vladimir Putin's 'Crimea Effect' Ebbs Away 5 Years on: DW: 15.03.2019.” DW.COM, www.dw.com/en/vladimir-putins-crimea-effect-ebbs-away-5-years-on/a-47941002.

Ilyin, Vladimir, and Mikhail Morev. “Pension Reform and Exacerbating Issues of the Legitimacy of the Government.” Economic and Social Changes: Facts, Trends, Forecast / Экономические и Социальные Перемены: Факты, Тенденции, Прогноз, no. 4 (58), 2018, doi:10.15838/esc.2018.4.58.1.

Cook, Linda, et al. “Russian Pension Reform under Quadruple Influence.” Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 66, no. 2, 2017, pp. 96–108., doi:10.1080/10758216.2017.1383854.

Noble, Ben. “Putin Just Won a Supermajority in the Duma. That Matters.” The Washington Post, WP Company,1 Oct.2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/01/putin-just-won-a-super-majority-in-the-duma-that-matters/.

CBS News. “Putin Scales Back Pension Reform Plan as Approval Rating Dips.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 29 Aug. 2018, www.cbsnews.com/news/vladimir-putin-russia-pension-reform-approval-ratings-drop-lowest-level-years/.

Moscow, Reuters. “Thousands Protest in Russia against Plans to Hike Pension Age.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2 Sept. 2018, www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/02/thousands-protest-in-russia-against-plans-to-hike-retirement-age.

“Putin's Approval, Trust Ratings Rise after His Address to Nation over COVID-19.” TASS, 3 Apr. 2020, tass.com/society/1140093.

Sang, Lucia I. Suarez. “Putin Asks Court to Amend Constitution, Allow Him to Remain in Power until 2036.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 15 Mar. 2020, www.foxnews.com/world/putin-law-2036-in-power-court.

McGuinness, Damien. “How a Cyber Attack Transformed Estonia.” BBC News, BBC, 27 Apr. 2017, www.bbc.com/news/39655415.

This content was accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge at the time of publication but may be out of date. The information contained in this article may not reflect current policies, laws, technology, or data.

Related Articles