Putin signs unpopular pension reform into law despite protests

After being passed by senators, Russia's controversial reform to raise the retirement age, which has triggered rare mass protests, could be signed into law soon. (AFP Photo/Vasily MAXIMOV )

Moscow (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday signed a deeply controversial bill to raise the state pension age for the first time since the Soviet era, the Kremlin said.

The bill, which has sparked rare street protests, only needed Putin's approval to become law after the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, passed it earlier on Wednesday.

The pension reform will gradually raise the retirement age for men to 65 from 60, and for women from 55 to 60 -- the first hike in almost 90 years.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had earlier indicated that Putin could sign the bill soon without being more specific.

"As soon as the legislation goes to the president, it can be expected that the president will make a decision without putting it on the back burner," Peskov told reporters.

In the face of public anger and following a major fall in his approval ratings, Putin modified the bill with a raft of concessions, saying women would retire at 60 instead of 63 as had been proposed initially.

Putin also allowed women with three or more children to retire early, while companies that fire, or refuse to hire those nearing the state pension age will be punished with fines.

His concessions have failed to pacify ordinary Russians however, with most remaining opposed to the reform.

Peskov on Wednesday denied the Kremlin was concerned by a dip in Putin's approval ratings. The president's main goal was to "work for the benefit of the people," he said.

Parliament's lower house passed the bill in a final third reading last week.

Most Russians have been struggling in an economy hit by a slump in oil prices and Western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which have triggered a collapse in the value of the ruble.