By Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrey Ostroukh
OMSK/MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin hinted on Tuesday he was ready to soften an unpopular proposal to reform the pension system which has pushed his approval rating down to its lowest level in more than four years.
He said he would deliver his views in a public statement on the issue, perhaps as soon as Wednesday, adding he was aware of public unhappiness about the proposed reform and decisions had to be undertaken cautiously.
"I ask you not to forget that our decisions will affect the fates of millions of people and must be fair. One should not act mechanically, formally, but only take a balanced and cautious approach," Putin said.
Lawmakers, in a preliminary vote in July, backed a government proposal to sharply raise the retirement age, part of a controversial budget package designed to shore up state finances.
Putin, who once promised never to raise the retirement age, had until now been careful to distance himself from the proposed reforms, which envisage raising the retirement age to 65 from 60 for men and to 63 from 55 for women.
Polls show that around 90 percent of the population oppose the proposed reform.
But on Tuesday he told a government meeting in the Siberian city of Omsk that he would soon intervene.
"In the nearest future, maybe even tomorrow, I will formulate my attitude (to the reform) in detail and will make the respective statement."
Putin said any decision on the pension system had to be balanced and cautious. He said he was aware of the public's extremely negative reaction to the proposed reform.
"Of course, all this has drawn a predictable reaction, a rather sharp discussion in public," Putin said, adding that any changes in the pension age must provide a decent standard of living for Russia's 147 million-strong population.
The retirement age proposal is politically sensitive for Putin, who was re-elected in March, because it has prompted a series of protests across Russia since it was announced on June 14, the day Russia played the first match of its soccer World Cup.
According to opinion polls, Putin's approval ratings have fallen to levels last seen before Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea which provided the Russian leader with a popularity boost.
Putin's spokesman on Tuesday dismissed speculation that Putin had been pushed into addressing the issue by a drop in his approval ratings, however.
While Putin said authorities could not act "routinely" and "formally" when it came to reforming the pension system, he made clear that some kind of reform was needed though.
"... We need to take into account the current situation in the economy and the labour market, we must understand what the future holds for the country in 10, 20 and even 30 years," Putin said.
He said he had asked the government to consult with political parties, public organisations and regional administrations to review the legislation before its second reading in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.
Lawmakers passed the bill in the first reading in July. To become law, the bill must pass three readings in the State Duma and must then be approved by the upper house and finally signed into law by the president.
(Writing by Andrey Kuzmin and Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Richard Balmforth)