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Yes Or No: Is A Referendum In The Cards Over Russian Pension Reform?

Russian opposition activists show their displeasure by stepping upon a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin at a rally in Moscow on July 18 against proposed retirement-age increases.
Russian opposition activists show their displeasure by stepping upon a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin at a rally in Moscow on July 18 against proposed retirement-age increases.

MOSCOW -- It has been a quarter century since the Russian government asked its citizens their opinion on anything in a formal national referendum.

But a proposed referendum on the hot-button issue of raising retirement ages moved one step closer to reality last week when the Central Election Commission removed a major hurdle and approved the wording of three questions put forward for just such a vote.

"This is definitely a breakthrough," said Ilya Sviridov, a candidate for the post of Moscow mayor from the A Just Russia party and a sponsor of one of the three referendum proposals. "Now all the legal obstacles have been removed. Our task going forward is to consolidate our forces so that the referendum is held."

The three approved questions, one of which was proposed by a group of organizations from the Altai region that is headed by the local branch of the Communist Party (KPRF), all ask basically whether the current retirement ages (60 years for men and 55 for women) should remain unchanged.

Ilya Sviridov (file photo)
Ilya Sviridov (file photo)

According to the Russian government's Rosstat statistics agency, life expectancy was 66 for men and 77 for women in 2016. But these figures vary widely by region, with the low being 60 for men in Chukotka and the high being 84 for women in Ingushetia.

Earlier this summer, the ruling United Russia party and the government of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev submitted to the Duma a bill that would raise the retirement age for men to 65 by 2028 and for women to 63 by 2034.

Supporters say the move was necessary because the economy has been badly strained by burdens such 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 President Vladimir Putin's reelection campaign.

Opinion polls show that about 90 percent of the population opposes raising the retirement ages, and the proposal -- which passed its first reading in the Duma in July -- has provoked a wave of angry protests across the country.

One of the themes of the demonstrations has been the call for a referendum. At a rally in Krasnodar on July 29, a demonstrator who asked to be identified only as Svetlana told RFE/RL that there must be a referendum.

"What is [the government] doing to people?" she asked. "This can't go on. It can't. Everything has to have a limit. Our government has obviously lost all sense of limits. I didn't vote for this government or this president or these reforms. Why am I here today? We have to find some way to tell them that we don't want to live this way. We want to live like human beings."

At a protest in Pskov the same day, a Communist-supporting demonstrator who gave her name as Natalya also signed a petition supporting a referendum, although she was skeptical it would make a difference.

A protest against pension reform in Moscow on July 29.
A protest against pension reform in Moscow on July 29.

"I think people have basically given up," she told RFE/RL. "Either what the people say doesn't reach the authorities or they don't react.... The people's opinions don't matter to the authorities. They will do what they think necessary in any case."

The Central Election Commission's green light, however, does not mean a referendum is a done deal. In fact, most analysts agree it remains a long shot in the context of the strictly managed political environment of Putin's vaunted power vertical.

Although the right to hold referendums is enshrined in the Russian Constitution, the government has set up administrative barriers to the exercise of that right.

Now, under the law on referendums, organizers must gather 2 million signatures from at least 42 separate regions of Russia within two months. No more than 50,000 signatures can be collected in any single region. The first group to have its signatures approved by the Central Election Commission wins the right to put its question to the nation.

A Just Russia's Sviridov, though, is optimistic that the pro-referendum forces can unite and overcome this hurdle.

"As far as gathering 2 million signatures, I think that considering the nearly unanimous and unqualified reaction of the public to this reform, this is a completely doable figure," he told RFE/RL.

Moscow-based political commentator Yekaterina Shulman told RFE/RL she is certain there will be no referendum on this "killer topic."

"Who -- and for what reason -- would allow this referendum to take place, with all the requirements of a legal period of political advertising, debate, and public speaking of all kinds," she said in an online interview. "It would be an orgy of antiregime activity of all sorts."

The law on referendums, she adds, was written specifically to prevent them from being held at the federal level.

Boris Kravchenko, president of the All-Russian Confederation of Labor, agreed.

"The process of conducting a referendum is such that it has not been possible for even major political powers to hold one," he said. "The last referendum we had was in 1993. It is like the process for conducting a strike -- in principle, we have that right and there is a procedure, but in reality it is impossible to hold one legally."

Boris Kravchenko (file photo)
Boris Kravchenko (file photo)

"I don't think that any of the groups registered [by the Central Election Commission] has any realistic chance of bringing this question to a referendum," he added.

In 1993, the government of then-President Boris Yeltsin held a referendum aimed at breaking a political standoff between the executive and legislative branches. In 1992, the region of Tatarstan held a regional referendum in which 62 percent of participants agreed that "Tatarstan is a sovereign state...building its relations with the Russian Federation...on an equal basis."

The prospect of holding a referendum on the pension issues, Kravchenko argued, is something of a red herring, aimed at derailing real opposition to the pension reform and defusing public outrage.

"It is complicating the real public strategy connected with holding mass protests and demonstrations to force the government to change its position," Kravchenko said. "That strategy has been yielding results. We see an unprecedented intention of the Russian people to defend their social and retirement rights."

According to Kravchenko's count, there have been more than 450 demonstrations in 281 cities and towns in the two months since the pension reform became a public issue. Many of places that have seen pension protests, he noted, have never seen any opposition political activity in the past.

The Communist Party and A Just Russia are both part of what is called the "systemic opposition" in Russia -- parties that pretend to represent different segments of the electorate but which in practice virtually always vote in lockstep with the ruling United Russia party and always support Putin. In exchange, they have a greater ability to participate in and even win elections and to operate offices in the regions.

Shulman said the charade of a referendum process gives them an opportunity to burnish their opposition credentials, to tell their angry electorates that "at least we tried."

"Plus it has the added bonus of letting them claim 'the regime is afraid of us,'" she said, if the bid to hold a referendum is ultimately rejected.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Lyubov Chizhova

Original version in Russian