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article imageRussian parliament approves Putin's controversial pension reform

By Maria ANTONOVA (AFP)     Sep 26, 2018 in World

The Russian parliament's lower house passed a controversial pension reform bill Wednesday, after President Vladimir Putin announced concessions to try to dampen widespread public anger over plans to raise the state retirement age.

The lower house, the State Duma, passed the legislation in a key second reading, with 326 votes for, 59 against and one abstention.

The bill, which still has to go through the formality of a third reading and a senate hearing, would see Russian men retire at 65 instead of 60.

The plan -- personally backed by Putin -- has sparked rare national protests, with tens of thousands rallying across Russia in recent months.

In a rare televised address in August, the Russian president proposed a number of concessions, in an apparent attempt to stem a major fall in his approval ratings.

Earlier Wednesday, the State Duma approved Putin's proposed amendments to the reform, raising the state pension age for women by five years to 60, instead of eight years to 63 as originally proposed, among other suggestions.

Observers say Putin's concessions have done little to pacify ordinary Russians.

Several dozen people staged a protest outside the State Duma on Wednesday, including opposition activist Sergei Udaltsov who held a poster reading: "Retirement age increase is genocide!"

Another protester held a picture of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev with an inscription reading: "An enemy of the people".

- Protests despite concessions -

Putin proposed that women with three or more children retire early, while companies that fire, or refuse to hire those nearing the pension age be punished with fines.

The Russian president has stressed that delaying the reform any longer could lead to a collapse of the entire financial system and hyperinflation, seen in the 1990s when savings of many Russians were wiped out.

A study by the Public Opinion Foundation pollster showed that 75 percent of Russians are against the pension reform, compared to 80 percent before Putin addressed the nation.

Most Russians have been struggling in an economy hit by a slump in oil prices and Western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea in 2014 which have triggered a collapse in the value of the ruble.

Street protests have continued and the Kremlin faces a rare electoral crisis after candidates of the ruling party United Russia failed to win governorship polls in four regions this month.

Heeding a call by Putin's top foe Alexei Navalny, thousands of Russians took to the streets across the country to protest against the reform earlier this month. More than a thousand were arrested during the September 9 protests, according to an independent monitor.

On Monday, Navalny was sentenced to 20 days in jail over organising those protests, with the court ruling coming the same day he was released from jail after spending a month behind bars.

The pension reform -- announced the day the World Cup started in Russia in June -- will be the first retirement age increase in the country in nearly 90 years.

Given the low life expectancy of Russian men -- 65 years -- many would not live long enough under the reforms to receive a state pension.

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