MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin holds vast influence over this country’s news media, security apparatus and politics. Nevertheless, he took to the airwaves on Wednesday to announce a concession to critics and to plead for the people’s support.
A public backlash in recent weeks against the government’s plan to raise Russia’s retirement age, unchanged for the better part of a century, has laid bare some of the potential cracks in the foundations of Putin’s popularity.
The original proposal to overhaul the pension system, first announced by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev just as the soccer World Cup kicked off here in June, would have raised the retirement age to 65 from 60 for men and to 63 from 55 for women.
But the move was deeply unpopular, polls showed, and it sparked protests across the country.
Addressing the nation in an unusual televised speech, Putin said he would move to reduce the new retirement age for women to 60. The revised age for men would stay the same, maintaining a discrepancy in men’s and women’s retirement ages in contrast with international trends.
At the same time, Putin sought to convince Russians that painful changes remain necessary to put the economy on more solid footing. Rather than blame the West, Putin cast the changes as an unavoidable consequence of longer life spans and a low birthrate.
The televised address, coming after a summer of criticism, was a sign that the Kremlin fears the consequences of public discontent despite Putin’s dominance over Russian politics. Analysts say that for all the Kremlin’s might, Putin is worried about sudden mass protests against him, the likes of which brought down leaders in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
In Wednesday’s speech, Putin repeatedly referred to the audience as his “dear friends” and ended with: “I ask for your understanding.” And he appealed in particular to Russia’s women, who would have seen the starker retirement-age increase under the original proposal.
“We’re not going to let that happen, of course,” Putin said, referring to the proposed eight-year increase for women. “In our country, there is a special, caring attitude to women.”
At the same time, Putin used his half-hour-long remarks to argue that demographic and economic realities mean that the country’s pension system — largely unchanged from Soviet times — needs to evolve.
It was a rare instance of Putin turning directly to the public to defend an unpopular measure. And it underscored the challenges that Russia’s lackluster economic growth, undermined further by Western sanctions, poses to Putin’s rule.
“It’s natural that all of this is perceived painfully by many people. I understand this well and share this concern,” Putin said, speaking directly to the camera from a wood-paneled office, flanked by Russian flags, a large phone and a leather binder.
After describing what he said would be the unsustainable costs of keeping the retirement age unchanged, he added: “A lack of action now or taking various cosmetic measures would be irresponsible and dishonest with respect both to our country and our children.”
Putin’s approval ratings dropped to 67 percent in July from 79 percent in May, according to the independent Levada Center. Almost 90 percent of Russians opposed the pension overhaul, the pollster found. Opposition politicians seized on the plan to galvanize their supporters.
Activist Alexei Navalny, who called for nationwide protests coinciding with Russian regional elections Sept. 9, was sentenced Monday to 30 days in jail. Analysts said the move to put Navalny behind bars, as punishment for his role in organizing protests in January, appeared designed to keep the prominent opposition leader off the streets for the demonstrations opposing the pension overhaul.
The blowback against the pension plan illustrated that managing Russia’s shaky economy represents more treacherous ground for Putin at home than does his foreign policy. The annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and the ensuing conflict with the West have allowed Putin to position himself as a defender of the Russian people who is above the fray of daily politics. But the move to raise the retirement age suddenly brought the public’s focus back to Russia’s domestic malaise — and Putin’s approval rating dropped to a level last seen just before the annexation of Crimea.
Putin has tried to cast himself “as a father of the nation,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “Because of the pension reform, he stopped being only a symbol. People believed that he also carried responsibility for a wrong decision.”
Beyond reducing the retirement-age increase for women, Putin also promised a more generous approach to old-age benefits for people younger than the new retirement threshold.
Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said Putin’s concessions would cost an additional 500 billion rubles — $7.4 billion at the current exchange rate — over six years.
Kremlin backers showered Putin with praise for hearing people’s concerns and taking responsibility for an unpopular policy. But Navalny renewed his call for September protests.
“The Kremlin wants everyone to celebrate the wisdom of the czar who got involved and prevented a robbery of a pension reform,” Navalny said on his website. “In fact, Putin today, after a long silence, supported this robbery.”
Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.