Anti-Putin protesters rally in Russia

PENSION PAIN::Reforms would raise the retirement age to 65 for men and 55 for women. The protests came as Russians in 26 regions went to the polls in local elections

Reuters, MOSCOW

Mon, Sep 10, 2018 - Page 5

Supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny yesterday protested across Russia against planned increases to the pension age, a challenge to the authorities who were holding regional elections on the same day.

The changes, going through parliament, have shaved about 15 percentage points off Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity and are the most unpopular government measure since a 2005 move to scrap Soviet-eras benefits, which led to nationwide pensioner protests.

Navalny, barred from state TV and prevented from running against Putin for president earlier this year, hopes to tap into public anger over the reform.

He had planned to lead a protest in Moscow yesterday, but a court last month convicted him of breaking protest laws and jailed him for 30 days. Navalny said the move was designed to derail the protests.

OVD-Info, a rights organization that monitors detentions, said 50 Navalny supporters had been detained by police in the run-up to the protests and that a further 31 activists, including some of Navalny’s closest aides, were detained yesterday.

His supporters pressed ahead anyway and planned to hold rallies in more than 80 towns and cities by the end of the day, including Moscow and St Petersburg.

The first rallies took place yesterday morning in eastern Russia. Footage of a rally in Ulan-Ude, about 4,400km east of Moscow, showed protesters walking through the city holding red balloons escorted by the police.

“Putin and his government have plundered the budget for the past 18 years,” Navalny’s team said in a pre-protest statement. “All that time they assured us there would not in any circumstance be a rise in the pension age. And now they are putting it up. The authorities are not listening to people and that means it’s time to take to the streets.”

In Moscow the authorities rejected an application from Navalny’s supporters to protest in the city center, raising the possibility that the police might disperse the rally by detaining people, as they have often done in the past.

News reports and other tallies showed at least 40 people had been arrested so far.

After being amended by Putin, the reforms envisage raising the retirement age for men from 60 to 65 and from 50 to 55 for women. Average life expectancy in Russia for men is 66 and 77 for women.

Opinion polls put Navalny’s support in the single digits, but backers note he won almost a third of the vote in a 2013 Moscow mayoral race, and believe he could give Putin a run for his money if ever allowed to run against him on a level playing field.

Navalny has likened Putin to an autocratic tsar who has clung to power for too long.

Yesterday’s elections were to select the heads of 26 of Russia’s 85 regions, including in Moscow, as well as local lawmakers and other officials.

Kremlin-loyal candidates are expected to win a majority of the races, with serious opposition candidates in the Moscow mayoral vote barred from standing.

Additional reporting by AFP