Russian World Cup joy contrasts with gloom over living standards

Decision to raise pension age meets with protests as Putin’s approval ratings sink 15%

King Felipe VI of Spain, Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev at the World Cup match between Spain and Russia in Moscow. Photograph: Dmitry Astakhov/Sputnik/EPA

King Felipe VI of Spain, Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev at the World Cup match between Spain and Russia in Moscow. Photograph: Dmitry Astakhov/Sputnik/EPA

 

When Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev blocked Spain’s final strike in a penalty shoot-out on Sunday, it seemed as if not just the cavernous Luzhniki Stadium but the whole of Moscow was exploding with joy.

Car horns sounded from far and wide, while whoops of joy emanated from apartment blocks where city dwellers, glued to their television screens indoors on one of the hottest days of the year, had been braced for a humiliating defeat by the Spanish.

Russia has been basking in the glory of hosting what Fifa has described as one of the best World Cups ever organised. Sunday’s unexpected win came as a massive boost to national morale at a time when many Russians were downcast about the growing hardships of daily life.

Tough economic reforms announced by the authorities just before the World Cup have stoked resentment in Russia despite the distraction of the football. Even Vladimir Putin, known as the “Teflon president” for his ability to avoid public criticism, has seen his high approval ratings take a knock.

Security regulations banning demonstrations in World Cup host cities will shield foreign football fans from witnessing spectacles of public discontent that might otherwise have cast a shadow over the tournament. But thousands took to the streets in other Russian cities at the weekend to protest against a government move to reform the pension system that is widely seen here as daylight robbery.

Demonstrators also vented their anger about other recent painful economic measures, from an increase in VAT to higher petrol and utilities costs.

Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, submitted a Bill to parliament in early June that, if backed by lawmakers, will postpone the retirement age for men to 65 years from 60 years in phases over the coming 10 years. Russian women will have to wait until they are 63 to collect their pensions, a full eight years longer than at present.

Various groups have been exempted from the changes, including workers in Russia’s harsh far north, mothers who have more than five children and carers of invalids. Other more privileged individuals, such as Russian state prosecutors and federal security agents, will retain the right to early retirement.

Ageing population

Russian pensions, on average about 14,000 roubles (€190) per month, are not exactly generous. But liberal economists say that, with an ageing population, Russia cannot afford to delay an overhaul of the system that weighs so heavily on the federal budget.

Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner, says the proposed measures amount to the “theft of tens of millions of people under the guise of overdue reforms”. Money to pay pensions would be better found by forcing Russian corporations to pay dividends and halting the misuse of government funds, he says.

It’s not only the political opposition that is kicking up a fuss.

Large Russian trade unions that are usually loyal to the Kremlin helped organise some of the weekend protests and are promising more action in the weeks ahead.

Various opinion polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of the Russian population are against any delay to pensions that would depress already low living standards.

In a survey last week, the Levada Center said the prospect of a delayed retirement age was adding to Russians’ gloom about their economic prospects and undermining confidence in the authorities.

Some 58 per cent of respondents said the government was not “in a condition to change the position of the country for the better”. Putin’s approval ratings, which were cruising at about 80 per cent when he won a fourth presidential term in a March election, have sunk 15 per cent over the past month.

Cynical timing

Kremlin critics have accused the authorities of timing the announcement of unpopular reforms with the World Cup in the hope that the tournament would distract public attention.

Russia’s defeat of Spain could embolden the authorities to inflict even more pain on the long-suffering population, joked Sergei Udaltsov, co-leader of the Russian Left Front opposition movement. “There’s a risk now that the government will abolish pensions altogether and introduce a 12-hour working day,” he tweeted on Monday.

Putin’s packed working schedule prevented him from attending Sunday’s match at the Luzhniki Stadium, according to the Kremlin. Instead Medvedev turned up in the VIP stalls and sat looking glumly uneasy through most of the game, as if braced for an inevitable defeat.

Putin has also remained absent from public discussion of the pension reforms, leaving Medvedev to take the flak.

Many commentators believe that once the World Cup is over, the Russian president will enter the fray and reprimand the government for bungling. Some officials may lose their jobs, but pension reforms, even if they are modified in some way, are probably here to stay.

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