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Not So United: Russia's Ruling Party Rattled By Pension-Reform Crisis

"United Russia" not feeling so united right now.
"United Russia" not feeling so united right now.

Speaking to a riled-up crowd at a July 28 protest against the Russian government's deeply unpopular proposal to raise retirement ages in Vologda, angry pensioner Nikolai Zharavin didn't mince words as to who was to blame.

"We need not only to drive out the government headed by [Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev," he said, "we also need to drive United Russia out of the State Duma. Then we'll see decisions made for the benefit of the people, instead of for the 10 percent that is the oligarchs and their families and the security services, whose interests are represented by [President Vladimir] Putin."

He cited a life expectancy in Vologda Oblast of under 65, suggesting that "only a handful of men will live to receive pensions."

"What good is this reform?"

WATCH: Several thousand people gathered in central Moscow on July 29 on a second consecutive day of protest against the Russian government's plan to raise the retirement age.

Thousands In Moscow Take Part In Second Day Of Retirement-Age Protest
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Political Damage Done

The first major economic initiative of Putin's fourth term, pension reform has become a harsh test for the ruling United Russia party. And the ordinarily watertight discipline is already beginning to leak.

The party's position is further complicated by the Kremlin's seemingly conscious strategy of distancing Putin from the reform, placing all the public responsibility for the move on Medvedev's government and United Russia.

"This reform has become a big test for the ruling party, of course, particularly because it comes just before [the September 9 local elections]." Nikolai Mironov, head of the Center for Economic and Political Reform think tank, tells RFE/RL.

"Among rank-and-file United Russia members, there are quite a few who don't agree with it. But for now, the party remains united and we don't see splits. This isn't the first time the United Russia has passed unpopular laws. What's more, members don't really have other options. Leaving politics altogether is even worse than agreeing with the reform and the prospects of the opposition are very weak. You aren't going to make a career there."

To bolster an economy creaking under such burdens as the costs of annexing Ukraine's Crimea region and the ensuing international sanctions against Russia, a chronic dependence on energy exports, and massive populist expenditures such as the hosting of this summer's World Cup soccer championship and raising state-sector salaries as part of Putin's reelection campaign this spring, the government is shepherding through the Duma a bill that would gradually increase the retirement age for men from the current 60 to 65 by 2028 and for women from the current 55 to 63 by 2034.

A poll earlier this month by the Levada Center suggested that about 90 percent of Russians oppose the reform. And, as might be expected, this opposition has quickly translated into waning support for Medvedev, his government, and United Russia. A Levada poll released on July 31 found that support for Medvedev had fallen to 31 percent, down from 42 percent in April. Support for the United Russia-dominated Duma fell from 43 percent to 33 percent over the same period. Despite the Kremlin's strategy of distancing Putin from the project, the president's rating dipped to 67 percent, down from 79 percent in May.

The more Kremlin-friendly All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) on July 31 published a poll that was taken just three days after United Russia Duma deputies voted virtually unanimously to pass the bill in its first reading that found the party's rating had fallen to 37.1 percent, its lowest rating since late 2011.

Even in the Duma, Russia's lower house, United Russia was unable to maintain complete unanimity. Deputy Natalya Poklonskaya voted against it, drawing the ire of party leadership. Deputy Sergei Zhelenyak failed to show up for the vote, after which he was forced to resign his post as deputy secretary of United Russia's general council.

Regional Fraying

In the regions, where United Russia rubs up directly against public discontent, party discipline is showing more wear. In the town of Nerl in Ivanovo Oblast, all 12 members of the city council, including six members of the United Russia party, signed an appeal expressing unqualified opposition to the pension-reform plan.

In the Urals city of Nizhny Tagil, party member Nikolai Tarakhov handed in his party card, saying in his resignation letter: "The party's program and the activity of its leadership are now directed against their own nation. I do not want to participate in manure and get soiled by it."

Aleksandr Kryuchenkov, the local party secretary in the Ivanovo Oblast town of Zavolzhsk, also resigned, calling the policy "anti-people."

Vadim Provorov
Vadim Provorov

"Aleksandr Kryuchenkov was a responsible and active party member," Vadim Provorov, a former United Russia member in nearby Kineshma who also resigned over the pension issue, tells RFE/RL, "but he couldn't stand it and left the party. Olga Matyushina, a very active person who was devoted to her hometown of Zavolzhsk and who did so much for her city.... And she also left the party for the same reason."

"We are only the first harbingers," Provorov predicts. "Just watch and you will see a mass departure from United Russia in the very near future. Every week, more will leave."

WATCH: What made tens of thousands of Russians join public protests against plans to raise the retirement age, in cities across the country on July 28-29?

'Elites Will Wipe Their Feet On Us': Russians Protest Pension Change
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0:00 0:01:12 0:00

Svetlana Gryunbaum, the top United Russia official in Kineshma, disagrees, saying that no one besides Provorov planned to quit, despite the public's disdain for the reform.

"They are calling us constantly, shouting at us, and accusing us of all possible sins," Gryunbaum tells RFE/RL. "'Why are we silent?' 'Why does the party accept this?'"

"I tell them to come in and write a complaint and we will send it to Moscow," she continues. "But for some reason, they don't come. What more can we do? I have no idea. Of course, we are all hoping that Putin won't sign it."

One United Russia activist in Kineshma who asked not to be identified and who remains in the party expressed serious reservations about the pension policy.

"My husband is 55, and for the last two weeks he has been in a deep depression," she tells RFE/RL. "He just sits there saying that while before he had a small chance of living to get a pension, now he definitely has none. And how are we supposed to survive for those additional years? There is no work in this town. Is he supposed to go to Moscow? They won't even hire him as a watchman there."

"What are we to do?" she muses about the fate of United Russia members. "We vote like they tell us to. We have solid party discipline. But inside, everything is boiling."

End Of Putin's Myth

The pension-reform crisis could become a defining milepost for Putin. A 2005 reform that eliminated in-kind social benefits such as free transportation similarly brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets with calls for Putin's resignation. That opposition attracted the support of the Communist Party (which is playing a leading role in the current pension-reform protests), and many Kremlin loyalists -- including the mayor of Moscow, the governor of St. Petersburg, and the Russian Orthodox patriarch -- spoke out against the move.

The Kremlin's response at the time was a major crackdown on the protesters and the "provocateurs" who officials claimed were egging them on, as well as a pitiless tightening of discipline among regional officials and United Russia members.

"The pension reform has delivered a powerful blow to the regime," political analyst Abbas Gallyamov tells RFE/RL of the latest outcry. "It has become clear that Putin is not a miracle worker, that even for him some things don't work out. The myth of the great ruler that arose after the [annexation] of Crimea, of course, has not broken yet, but it is shaking. Criticism of the authorities has moved from the margins to the mainstream."

"And even backing away from the reform will not restore the previous status quo," he adds. "People might draw the conclusion that the authorities were frightened by the universal opposition and backed down. The people could develop a taste for protest if it becomes clear that by demonstrating their dissatisfaction, they can solve their problems."

The fact that active and enthusiastic United Russia members in the regions are leaving the party, Gallyamov says, is an indication that "the structure of the regime is beginning to crumble around the edges."

At an antireform protest in Pskov on July 28, protesters prepared banners with the slogans "Putin, if you have a conscience, resign!" and "United Russia is voting to rob pensioners!" Police immediately confiscated them before they could be unfurled, Pskov Oblast communist lawmaker Viktor Dulya told RFE/RL.

In Volgograd the same day, accountant Svetlana Tkacheva was among the protesters.

"The government's decision to raise the retirement age has made me angry," she says. "It will make things hard for us. We'd like to retire with a sound mind and a healthy body. We'd like to devote our retirement years to our grandchildren. The state is trying to save money at the expense of ordinary citizens and is spending our money on its own unjustifiable expenses."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Yelizaveta Mayetnaya of RFE/RL's Russian Service