By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin told Russians on Thursday there were signs that years of falling real wages, which have dented his popularity, were drawing to an end and that a government programme would deliver higher living standards.
Putin, 66, in power as president or prime minister since 1999, was re-elected by a landslide last year but his high ratings have slipped over pension reforms.
The government raised the retirement age to 65 from 60 for men and to 60 from 55 for women, a deeply unpopular move that has aggravated grumbling over six years of falling real incomes.
Putin’s own approval rating has suffered, falling from a record high of almost 90 percent in 2015 to 64 percent now.
In his annual televised question and answer session, Putin said low living standards, low wages, poor healthcare and worries about how rubbish was being disposed of were now the most acute problems for Russians.
One caller from the Samara region complained about the difficulty of raising a family on just 10,000 roubles (124.28 pounds) a month. “When will life get better?,” the caller asked.
“It’s true that real incomes have been falling for several years,” responded Putin. “The biggest fall was in 2016, but now incomes have gradually started to recover,” he said, blaming past volatility in energy markets.
A major public spending programme called National Projects would boost living standards, he pledged.
“The results of this should be being felt this year and next year,” Putin said.
Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, now head of the Audit Chamber, said on Sunday he was concerned about the risk of “a social explosion” if poverty levels were not cut, a comment the Kremlin criticised as emotional.
Putin, whose term is not due to end until 2024, does not face an imminent political threat despite some indications of simmering discontent.
Plans to open waste disposal facilities near populated areas have sparked protests in places, while the case of a journalist wrongly accused of drugs charges triggered a protest in Moscow this month and a rare and swift U-turn from the authorities.
In a sign of Kremlin nervousness, Russia’s state pollster last month introduced a new methodology for canvassing public opinion after the Kremlin questioned its earlier findings. They had shown trust in Putin falling to 31.7% – its lowest in 13 years – because of people’s economic disenchantment.
Under the new methodology, VTsIOM, the state pollster, showed public trust in Putin surging to 72.3%, a figure it said dropped slightly this month to 71.7%.
(Reporting by Moscow Bureau; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Jon Boyle)