As World Watches Russia, Opposition Seeks To Score With Pension Protests

Map of Russia and Russian Flag adapted from images at state.gov

(Article ©2018 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Carl Schreck – June 20, 2018) – also appeared at rferl.org/a/russia-world-cup-russia-opposition-pension-protests/29306847.html)

As World Cup fever mounts in Russia, opponents of a government plan to raise the retirement age find themselves jostling for political position, with a handful of protests announced against the proposed measure set to coincide with soccer’s centerpiece event.

The planned protests against pension-reform legislation submitted by the government last week come amid tightened restrictions on demonstrations in Russian cities hosting the World Cup that President Vladimir Putin enacted in 2017.

They also raise the specter of a possible police crackdown on dissent at a time when hundreds of millions of people around the world are following events on and off the soccer pitch in Russia, though protest organizers appear to be taking pains to steer clear of the tournament.

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny on June 19 urged Russians to rally against the proposed reform in 20 cities — none of which are hosting World Cup matches — on July 1, calling the plan “the simple robbery of tens of millions of people.”

Since 2012, Russia has enacted laws on demonstrations that critics say are aimed at stifling public displays of dissent, and anticorruption protests spearheaded by Navalny in recent years have triggered large-scale detentions by riot police.

Meanwhile, the movement of leftist opposition politician Sergei Udaltsov, who was released from prison last year following his conviction on charges of organizing “mass disorder” in 2012 antigovernment protests, has sought permission for a July 4 protest in Moscow.

The veteran liberal Yabloko party, which is not represented in the federal legislature, is seeking to stage a July 3 protest in Moscow. And the Communists, Russia’s largest nominal opposition party in parliament, and various trade unions are organizing demonstrations in a range of cities in the coming weeks.

Consolidated Protest?

Organizers have said that they are open to joining up with other movements for the protests against the planned reforms, which would still need to be approved in parliament and then signed into law by Putin before taking force.

“If [authorities] don’t take steps to compromise with society, then the protest could be on a very large scale. All political forces will be against it: liberals, the left, and the right. A consolidated protest is possible,” Udaltsov told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

Navalny’s top lawyer, Ivan Zhdanov, has said it is “crucial to consult with other political forces and trade unions” involved in the issue.

“We don’t have any goal of stealing the show and staging a protest that only supporters of Aleksei Navalny show up to,” Zhdanov said.

The historically fractious ties between opposition forces across Russia’s political landscape suggest such coordination could be difficult.

Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, told the Vedomosti newspaper this week that the Kremlin foe’s organization would seek to work with trade unions and other opponents of the pension-reform plan.

The head of Russia’s largest labor union, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, has called for a series of pickets and demonstrations against the proposed reform, according to a letter obtained by the Russian news outlet RBC.

But the author of the letter, Mikhail Shmakov, is a senior member of Putin’s People’s Front movement who has suggested without evidence that Navalny is “financed by our enemies, enemies of the state” — an accusation regularly leveled by Kremlin loyalists against the opposition leader.

A petition against the proposed reform by another labor organization, the Confederation of Labor, had garnered nearly 2.2 million signatures on the Change.org website as of June 20.

‘Father-President’

The Kremlin thus far has sought to distance Putin from the plan to raise the retirement age, which has angered many Russians who would see access to their pensions delayed by several years.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that Putin was not involved in discussions of the proposed reform, saying it is “premature” to seek the president’s opinion on the matter while the measure is still being examined by experts and officials.

Political observers say the proposal could be watered down by the time it lands on Putin’s desk for his signature.

“It’s not yet clear how outspoken the protest against the raising of the retirement age will be: whether it will go back to the confines of kitchen conversation, or truly lay the groundwork for a new consolidation of the opposition,” Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Center, a respected independent pollster, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

Gudkov suggested that Putin could play the role of the “father-president” who ultimately steps in to “correct” the “harsh measures” proposed by his government.”

Former Kremlin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that he would not rush to overstate the potential impact that street protests could have on the course of the proposed reforms. He said they could have some influence but were unlikely to derail the proposed reform.

“But I’d speak cautiously for the moment. We have to see what they look like first. I don’t know. People are mainly concerned with soccer at this point, not politics,” Pavlovsky said.

With reporting by Ivan Voronin of RFE/RL’s Russian Service