Russian President Vladimir Putin has distanced himself from an unpopular government plan to increase the retirement age, saying "I do not like any of the ways that have been discussed" to implement the idea.
Putin's comments, made on July 20 in the city of Kaliningrad, were his first public remarks on the topic since the idea was proposed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on June 16.
"When I am asked about which of the variants [of the plan] I like, I answered then and answer now: none," Putin said. "I like none of [them]...and I assure you that there are few people on the government, if any, who like that," Putin said.
He called the issue of the retirement-age increase "very sensitive for many people" and, without giving any names, criticized Russian opposition groups and politicians, including Aleksei Navalny, who openly oppose the idea and who have mobilized thousands of Russian to protest against the proposal.
"I certainly will have to listen to all opinions on the issue and look at the discussions..." Putin said. "But [I will] listen to those people who offer something sensible, sound, thinking about the interests of the country and people, but not to those who use this issue that is very sensitive for millions of people for the sake of their own public relations," Putin said.
Because the issue is so politically sensitive, the Kremlin has taken pains to present the plan as a government initiative and to keep Putin above the fray.
Putin's comments came one day after the State Duma approved in its first reading the controversial bill as some 200 people rallied in front of the parliament building.
Maksim Suraikin, the leader of the Communists of Russia party, which is different from the much larger Communist Party led by Gennady Zyuganov; Sergei Mitrokhin, a leading figure of the opposition Yabloko party; and Sergei Udaltsov, the head of the Levy Front (Left Front) movement, were among the protesters.
Under the government's proposal, the retirement-age increases would be gradual and would begin in 2019.
The bill provides for the retirement age to rise to 65 for men by 2028 and 63 for women by 2034. Currently, the retirement age for men and women is 60 and 55, respectively.
The Duma must approve the legislation in two more readings before it is passed on to the upper chamber, the Federation Council. If the council approves it, it will have to be signed by Putin before it becomes law.
The increases -- which would be the first since the Soviet era -- would come in a country where life expectancy is relatively low and the pension age is lower than in any developed country.
The government's plan to raise the retirement age has prompted protests across Russia since it was announced last month.
More than 2.8 million people have signed a petition against the reform on change.org.