This is the Sort of Thing that Takes Down Authoritarian Regimes

Vladimir Putin is experiencing significant political blow-back for cuts to pensions and an increase in the retirement age.

It’s part of the standard neoliberal playbook, and it is the sort of thing, rather than foreign adventurism or crack-downs on political rivals, that frequently result in major political shakeups:

Pension reform is genocide!” “You deprive us of our pension – we deprive you of your authority!” “We don’t want to die working!”

These were only some of the slogans shouted by Russian protesters during mass rallies last weekend, held in response to a new reform that will rise the retirement age in Russia. From Moscow to St Petersburg to Siberia to the country’s Far East, the rallies were a nationwide phenomenon across the world’s biggest country.

For Vladimir Putin, the situation represents a rare mis-step. The tough-guy president has, for years, presented himself as a national defender, fully in synch with the concerns of the Russian street.

The media were not beating about the bush. Moscow newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets defined the protests as the “most dangerous and risky reform of President Putin’s 20-year rule.”

More than three million Russian citizens have already signed an online petition against the pension reform which, starting from 2019, is due to gradually increase the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women.


However, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has stated clearly that reform is necessary to save Russia’s pension system, which relies on state budget subsidies to stay afloat. Despite brave talk of sanctions resistance, a rising Russian economy, apparently successful overseas military adventures and the warm afterglow of the World Cup, low oil prices and Western sanctions continue to erode Moscow’s finances.


Regardless of whether it is essential or not, the reform is colossally unpopular – about 90% of Russians oppose it. Naturally, it is having a deep impact on the approval rating of the United Russia party.


As a result, Putin’s popularity rate has been already affected by the reform, falling sharply from 80% in May to 64% in late July, according to the VTsIOM state pollster. This is problematic for Putin, considering that a great deal of Russian trust in him depends on his reputation as “protector of the Russian people” against foreign threats and as guarantor of national stability, particularly after the chaos of the Yeltsin years.

I expect to see some sort of partial walk back from Putin, as well as long term political consequences.

The number of authoritarian governments that have been brought down by implementing these sorts of neoliberal remedies, frequently at the hands of the IMF, is legion.


Leave a Reply