Protesters gather on July 1 in Birobidzhan, in Russia's Far East.
Protesters against government pension plans gather on July 1 in Birobidzhan, in Russia's Far East. The pension age for women to rise from 55 to 63. For men it will rise from 60 to 65

Tatiana Nagibina’s husband is 10 years away from retirement and she is already anxious for him. “He is on daily medication for a heart condition at 50, so when he gets to 60, he will need to rest,” said Ms Nagibina, head of the opposition Yabloko party in the western Siberian city of Omsk.

But under government plans to raise the pension age Mr Nagibina may not now be allowed to retire until he is 65 — a policy that Ms Nagibina called “a crime against the Russian people”.

In Omsk region, male average life expectancy is 65 years, below the already low Russian average of 66.5. “If men’s pension age is raised to 65, they will not live to retire,” said Ms Nagibina said, who organised a protest in Omsk that drew more than 4,500 on Sunday — rare for the staid industrial city.

The Russian government announced its reform plans on the eve of the World Cup, distracting public attention from the shock. They are potentially one of the most far-reaching economic changes of President Vladimir Putin’s latest six-year term, following his re-election in March. But in the country’s poorer cities and regions fear and anger are building.

Omsk was one of more than two dozen cities where people demonstrated against the plans, which would raise the pension age for men from 60 to 65 for men and for women from 55 to 63. Many token opposition parties, usually loyal to the Kremlin, are campaigning against the changes. In Omsk politicians from all parties except the ruling United Russia, as well as supporters of opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny, joined Ms Nagibina’s rally — a highly unusual alliance.

According to a poll published by the pro-Kremlin Public Opinion Foundation on Friday, 80 per cent of Russians are opposed to the proposals. VCIOM, another Kremlin-loyal pollster, found that Mr Putin’s support rating dropped from 78 per cent on June 14 to 64 per cent 10 days later.

Although the protesters’ slogans focus on the reform robbing pensioners of years of retirement, a much more serious worry is that it could deprive millions of households of vital income.

Since Russian pensions are low, many retirees already work up to or beyond the planned new pension thresholds. But most people in their 50s and 60s have low-paid jobs, making this age group dependent on pensions as well. If Moscow’s reform is implemented from next year as planned almost 15m people — more than 10 per cent of the population — will face losing money they have counted on.

While the government has promised to raise pensions, using some of the savings created by having millions retire later, middle-aged Russians fear they will suffer nonetheless.

“Many of us are already living in humiliating conditions now — they have just enough for bread and milk, and clothing themselves in Chinese shops,” said Ms Nagibina of her friends. “The government’s new policy will be fatal.”

The government argues that the changes are unavoidable because a rapidly ageing population is driving the pension fund into the red and threatens to create a labour shortage. But critics said the reform would achieve little other than temporarily easing strain on public finances, and warned that structural problems in the labour market stemmed from broader ills in the economy.

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“In our country, jobs are disappearing at a faster rate than new ones are created, and we are not creating the right jobs,” said Vladimir Gimpelson, a professor at the Higher School of Economics and Russia’s leading labour economist. “So that is a big problem, but it is not a labour market problem per se because it is related to the institutional environment, investment, technology, everything — so we come to politics.”

Many economists have little hope that Mr Putin’s political model will allow for truly independent courts, less corruption and administrative interference and better protection of private property — factors to encourage more long-term investment.

But critics of the pension reform plan said there were things Moscow could do to make jobs more secure and better paid.

“In Russia, the wage that people receive peaks very early, around the age of 30, and then declines. That is an abnormal picture compared with other developed economies, where people’s wages continue rising throughout their working lives,” said Mr Gimpelson.

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He said the slide in Russians’ wages later in their working lives was in part because of lack of training. “Very few people ever learn again after finishing their formal education, and therefore their profitability declines, so they are forced to downgrade to lower paid work. The government can create incentives to encourage continued learning,” he said.

Many low-paid jobs are in the informal sector. “Instead of raising the pension age, the government should do more to fight informal employment and the shadow economy as a whole, to support decent wages for decent work,” said Alexander Lozhkin, a deputy in the Omsk municipal assembly from the nationalist, Kremlin-loyal Liberal Democratic Party.

Many of the protesters in Omsk are reluctant to wait. “We are a very rich country. Where is all the money from the oil, the gas, the gold?” asked Elena Sveshnikova, an activist in Omsk from A Just Russia, a centre-left party. “Our natural resources should be nationalised, and the revenues from them distributed to the people.”

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