Russia moves closer to raising retirement age after…

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By Nikolai Isayev and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

MOSCOW, Sept 26 – Russian lawmakers moved closer to approving divisive measures to raise the retirement age on Wednesday – plans that have already brought thousands out on to the street in protests and hit President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating.

A small group of pensioners, opposition figures and other opponents of the changes gathered outside the lower house of parliament where 326 lawmakers in the 450-seat legislature voted in favour of the bill on a second reading.

The measures, meant to relieve pressure on state coffers, have been opposed by both anti-Kremlin activists and Communist lawmakers who rarely oppose government initiatives.

Putin watered down the draft legislation last month after the protests – the current bill raises the retirement age for men to 65 from 60 and to 60 from 55 for women.

But the concessions have not satisfied critics in a country where average life expectancy in Russia for men is 66 and 77 for women. Putin once promised he would never raise the retirement age.

“Hundreds of thousands across the country have raised their voices against the increase of the retirement age,” said opposition activist Sergei Udaltsov outside the State Duma before the vote.

“But the (ruling) United Russia party, the government and the president continue to abuse the country, forcing on it this shameful — or as I call it — diabolical bill.”

The proposed pension reforms are the most unpopular government measure since a 2005 move to scrap Soviet-era benefits and have shaved around 15 percentage points off Putin’s popularity rating.

The draft legislation must still undergo a third reading, which is set to take place on Thursday, and be approved by the senate before being signed into law by Putin.

On Wednesday 59 parliamentarians voted against the bill and one abstained.

Public discontent has drawn thousands into the streets in recent weeks. More than 800 people were detained in nationwide protests organised by opposition leader Alexei Navalny against the reforms earlier this month.

Navalny was sentenced to 30 days in jail in late August, a move he said was designed by the authorities to prevent him from leading the rallies. He was detained upon his release from jail on Monday and jailed for a further 20 days on charges of staging an illegal protest.

“This is a situation that affects everyone,” said Iman Ibragimov, a 26-year-old doctor wearing a red Communist party scarf outside parliament. “Even if the president signs the law, people will keep protesting.”

(Additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya, editing by Richard Balmforth)

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