“Pension reform is genocide!” “You deprive us of our pension – we deprive you of your authority!” “We don’t want to die working!”

These were only some of the slogans shouted by Russian protesters during mass rallies last weekend, held in response to a new reform that will rise the retirement age in Russia. From Moscow to St Petersburg to Siberia to the country’s Far East, the rallies were a nationwide phenomenon across the world’s biggest country.

For Vladimir Putin, the situation represents a rare mis-step. The tough-guy president has, for years, presented himself as a national defender, fully in synch with the concerns of the Russian street.

The media were not beating about the bush. Moscow newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets defined the protests as the “most dangerous and risky reform of President Putin’s 20-year rule.”

An unusual – and unlikely looking – coalition of political forces took to the streets against the move: communists, libertarians, labor unions and supporters of main opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

“Raising the pension age is a real crime and the usual robbery against tens of millions of people under the guise of a ‘mature reform,’” wrote Navalny on his social media accounts. “This is our official statement for the government: you will not enforce this reform!” Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov thundered in a speech during the Moscow rally. “The country said, ‘No!’”

More than three million Russian citizens have already signed an online petition against the pension reform which, starting from 2019, is due to gradually increase the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women.

Death before the pension?

The protesters’ indignation is easy to understand. As a consequence of the reform, critics say, many Russians will not live long enough to claim their pensions: Russia’s average life expectancy is 66 for men and 77 for women, as data from the World Health Organization show.

And some pockets are worse. In the eastern region of Chukotka, men’s life expectancy does not extend beyond 60 years, on average. According to a 2017 OECD report, Russia is lagging behind most developed countries in terms of life expectancy, mainly because of the traumatic, long-drawn out transition faced by the country’s economy in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Other post-Soviet countries such as Uzbekistan, Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan share similarly grim demographic figures.

According to the same OECD report, the particularly wide life-expectancy gap between Russian men and women is due to the formers’ risky behavior, such as heavy drinking and smoking. The newspaper Vedomosti  pointed out that only 60% of men who turned 20 this year will live long enough to reach the new retirement age.

Critics also point out that, since many retired people in Russia continue working after retiring in order to survive, the reform will deprive them of a vital source of income. Others say that people close to retirement will not be able to find new jobs.

Sanctions hitting home

However, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has stated clearly that reform is necessary to save Russia’s pension system, which relies on state budget subsidies to stay afloat. Despite brave talk of sanctions resistance, a rising Russian economy, apparently successful overseas military adventures and the warm afterglow of the World Cup, low oil prices and Western sanctions continue to erode Moscow’s finances.

As a result, the pension burden is becoming unsustainable. That is the economics. The core of the problem, though, is the demographic: the working-age population in Russia is steadily shrinking.

According to research published last year, if the retirement age stays unchanged, by 2030 Russia will lose about five and a half million working-age citizens, compared to 2015. That, quite simply, will result in the collapse of the pension system.

As an additional argument, reform promoters point out that the current retirement age was set in the 1930s, and life expectancy and labor conditions have hugely improved since then.

In fact, as Minister of Health Olga Tkacheva told state news agency RIA Novosti, life expectancy in Russia is expected to reach 75.8 and 83.7 for men and women respectively by 2030. “The pension reform is mature,” chairman of Accounts Chamber Aleksey Kudrin tweeted. “It is convenient for Russian citizens as it will enable a boost of pensions.”

High-risk maneuver by Moscow

Regardless of whether it is essential or not, the reform is colossally unpopular – about 90% of Russians oppose it. Naturally, it is having a deep impact on the approval rating of the United Russia party.

The majority political force in the Russian parliament and the only one endorsing the reform lost a 16% consensus from the beginning of the year, reaching a record low since 2011.

Moscow had predicted an outburst of popular anger, so shrewdly announced the reform the day before the World Cup kicked off on domestic soil. For a month, protests were forbidden in the cities hosting the tournament and national attention was distracted by the biggest sporting event in Russia’s history.

But when the celebrations came to an end, Russian citizens were left to deal with the new pension reform like an acute hangover. “While we were busy rejoicing at our footballers’ achievements, the government decided to score a goal against the whole country,” said Communist chief Zyuganov.

Can Putin remain above it? With popular anger directed against the government, Kremlin flacks have distanced the president from the unpopular reform in the typical “good czar and bad boyars” fashion, creating the impression that responsibility lies solely on falls guys Medvedev and his cabinet.

“When I am asked about which of the variants [of the reform plan] I like, I answered then and answer now: none,” Putin said in July. “I like none of [them] and I assure you that there are few people in the government, if any, who do like it.”

However, Putin cannot entirely wriggle out of responsibility: The strongman president, after all, holds the power of veto over laws approved by parliament.

As a result, Putin’s popularity rate has been already affected by the reform, falling sharply from 80% in May to 64% in late July, according to the VTsIOM state pollster. This is problematic for Putin, considering that a great deal of Russian trust in him depends on his reputation as “protector of the Russian people” against foreign threats and as guarantor of national stability, particularly after the chaos of the Yeltsin years.

Most especially, pensioners and those citizens who rely on state subsidies to survive cherish – or used to cherish – this paternalistic view of the president. Now, with no real or imaginary external enemies to blame for this much needed, but possibly destabilizing reform, the image of Putin as a caring father figure might start to crumble.