Putin Ratings Hit Four-Year Low on Plan to Raise Pension Age

(Bloomberg) -- More than four years since Vladimir Putin’s popularity shot to record highs after his annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, support for the Russian president has fallen right back on an unpopular plan to raise the pension age.

Confidence among Russians in Putin declined to 42 percent in mid-June from 45 percent a week earlier, the lowest level since December 2013, according to state-run polling company VTsIOM. It said Putin’s approval rating fell from 77 percent to 72 percent, the worst result since March 2014, the month he signed an order absorbing Crimea into Russia. A separate poll by the Public Opinion Foundation showed a similar drop.

The slump in the president’s popularity may be the first indicator of discontent with the plan to raise the pension age that the Russian government suddenly announced on June 14, the opening day of the soccer World Cup hosted by Russia for the first time. After resisting the measure for a decade, the government declared that it wants to increase the retirement age for men to 65 from 60 by 2028 and for women to 63 from 55 by 2034.

Added to a spike in gasoline prices in May provoked by tax changes, ratings for both Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev dived, even as the national soccer team’s stylish 5-0 victory over Saudi Arabia in the World Cup’s first game sparked a wave of patriotic fervor among Russians.

“Putin’s Teflon has cracked a bit, but not completely,” said Grigory Kertman, senior analyst at the Public Opinion Foundation, a polling company that advises the Kremlin. “The World Cup probably had the opposite effect. If someone thought during the championship it would be easier to digest, that person doesn’t understand human psychology.”

The foundation’s poll found that the Russian leader’s rating dropped to 54 percent from 62 percent in a week. “Increasing the pension age is a fundamentally unpopular measure, and usually it’s done in a less harsh manner,” Kertman said.

‘Serious Concessions’

Putin will be forced to make “serious concessions” if he sees the public mood hardening and the risk of mass protests, said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. While the government took the most extreme approach to raising the pension age, the Russian leader could play the role of a “good Tsar” and soften that, said Makarkin.

While the “socially significant” proposal is resonating with Russians and affecting the president’s popularity, Putin “never looks at his rating, the interests of the people matter most for him,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call on Monday.

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has called for protest rallies in 20 cities on July 1 against the proposal. The country’s largest trade union, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, is also urging demonstrations.

Distance Putin

The Kremlin has sought to distance Putin from the pension reform, saying he’s not involved in discussions on the government’s plan. The polling data suggests that’s not working. Russia’s compliant parliament may pass legislation approving the change by mid-July.

The VTsIOM poll showed confidence in Putin has declined by nearly 12 percentage points since March’s presidential election, when he won a record 77 percent support to claim an unprecedented fourth term. The six-year term is likely to be his last in the Kremlin under the constitution.

Putin, 65, has repeatedly put off a decision on the pension age in the past despite warnings from advisers about the economic impact of delaying reform. Russia’s aging population is weighing on the economy and the nation’s finances amid a period of persistent stagnation.

“If Putin had personally announced the pension reform, his support would have plunged even more,” said Valery Fedorov, head of VtSIOM. “What will happen next with the ratings isn’t clear -- anything can happen.”

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