MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday proposed a series of measures to soften a deeply unpopular pension reform, in an apparent attempt to stem a major fall in his approval ratings.
In a rare televised address, Putin suggested raising the state pension age by five years to 60 years for women, instead of the earlier proposed eight-year hike to 63, among other measures.
"The treatment of women in our country is special, gentle," Putin said in the 30-minute speech.
The proposed retirement age hike for men -- by five years to 65 -- will remain unchanged. The Russian leader, who is 65, also suggested early retirement for mothers with large families. And he said companies that fire or refuse to hire employees because they are nearing pension age should face administrative or criminal liability.
The proposed reform -- already approved by parliament's lower house in a first reading last month -- has led to a rare of outburst of public anger, with tens of thousands rallying across Russia in recent weeks.
Putin had sought to distance himself from the controversial measures and had been widely expected to soften the proposals to buttress his falling approval ratings.
Approval ratings low
At the same time Putin reiterated Wednesday that tough measures were needed, citing "serious demographic problems" stemming from the country's huge losses during World War II and the fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
"We will have to make a hard, difficult but necessary decision," Putin said, adding his proposals would soon be sent to the Russian parliament's lower house, the State Duma.
"I ask you to treat this with understanding," he said.
The state pension age in Russia is among the lowest in the world and the proposed reform will be the first such hike in nearly 90 years.
But given Russians' low life expectancy, many will not live long enough under the proposed system to receive a state pension.
However, the government says the burden is simply too great for its stretched finances as the economy struggles under Western sanctions.
Putin, who had previously vowed not to raise the pension age, has seen public trust in his presidency fall to 64 percent last month, down from 80 percent in May, according to VTsIOM state pollster.
The last time his approval ratings were so low was in January 2014, just months before his popularity skyrocketed following the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Ahead of the televised address, a Moscow court jailed Putin's top critic Alexei Navalny for 30 days on Monday, just days before he planned to stage a rally against the reform.