Russian opposition leaders jailed amid fury over pension reforms

Navalny and Udaltsov get 30-day prison terms ahead of planned public rallies

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has urged his supporters to resist “official repression”. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has urged his supporters to resist “official repression”. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

 

Russia has jailed two prominent opposition leaders ahead of protests against an unpopular government plan to raise the national retirement age.

A Moscow court handed Alexei Navalny a 30-day prison term on Monday after finding the opposition activist and anti-corruption crusader guilty of violating the law at a demonstration he led in the Russian capital in January.

Mr Navalny’s sentencing came one week after Sergei Udaltsov, the co-ordinator of Russia’s Left Front political movement, was jailed for 30 days for setting alight portraits of government officials at a rally in Moscow last month. Mr Udaltsov denied the charges and is staging a dry hunger strike to protest against his imprisonment.

Both men have been calling separately for nationwide protests in September against a controversial government plan to gradually raise the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and 55 to 63 for women.

Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, warned that the state pension system was in danger of buckling as the population ages and urged Russians to take the medicine of reform or face something even worse.

However, the government plan has sparked an unusual outbreak of public anger in Russia. Critics point out that with average life expectancy for Russian men no higher than 66 (according to the World Health Organisation) many people will not live to collect their pensions. Women on average live longer, until 77, but are needed in the home to help working mothers raise grandchildren.

Recent research by the Levada Center, an independent pollster, indicates that an astonishingly high nine out of 10 Russians are against any hike in the retirement age. Some 40 per cent of Russians are ready to take their complaints to the streets.

Mobilising support

Even the so-called systemic opposition parties in the Russian Duma or parliament that rarely challenge the government have complained about Mr Medvedev’s pension plan, forcing United Russia, the Kremlin’s ruling party, to concede that some modification to the reforms are required. Many observers suspect that the Kremlin is orchestrating the pensions debate behind the scenes and that before long Vladimir Putin will intervene.

Opposition leaders have capitalised on the rare mood of public resistance to mobilise support.

Mr Navalny, who made his name publishing investigative reports into alleged high-level corruption in Russia, says the government could source extra money for state pensions by cracking down on official graft and inefficient state spending.

Mr Udaltsov, whose Left Front movement has a radical leftist agenda, has flagged the injustice of the “cannibal” reforms and the government’s abnegation of its social responsibilities.

Moscow rally

Until his arrest at the weekend, Mr Navalny was planning to lead a rally in Moscow against an increase in the retirement age on September 9th – the same day that the city holds a mayoral election.

“Old Putin is so afraid of our protest on 09.09 ... that I will now be detained for 30 days and won’t be able to organise it myself any more,” he wrote on Instagram from the Moscow court where his case was being heard on Monday. “But I don’t doubt that you will be able to do it yourselves.”

Likewise, Mr Udaltsov has urged his supporters to resist “official repression” and march on September 2nd against pension reforms. Supporters of Mr Udaltsov reported on Monday that the activist had been hospitalised with severe dehydration after refusing solid food and liquids in jail for more than 10 days.