Changing the System: The Necessity of Russian Pension Reforms

By Kwok, James | Harvard International Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Changing the System: The Necessity of Russian Pension Reforms


Kwok, James, Harvard International Review


Over the past decade Russia's economy has been buoyed by renewal and newfound prosperity. Since the financial meltdown of 1998, the country has achieved positive economic progress. Driven by higher oil prices, Russian exports totaled US$317 billion, and annual GDP growth reached a significant 6.8 percent. The percentage of population below subsistence level dropped from 29 percent in 2000 to 17.6 percent in 2004 and continues to decline.

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However, while economic indicators provide reason for optimism among Russia's citizens, the poor financial state of the national pension system poses a threat to the standards of living of current and future Russian retirees. Without the right kind of reform, these retirees will find themselves with a lower standard of living and increased poverty. Most current retirees live on a basic fixed-income pension provided by the state--the monthly pension is roughly 2,726 rubles (US$103) per month. Even though particular groups such as World War II veterans receive an extra 550 rubles (US$21), fixed-income payments from the government for retirees are not sufficient to sustain a comfortable standard of living. As Rimma Markova, a pensioner and the head of the Pensioners Party in Russia told Lateline, "They've kicked us in the teeth and the most vulnerable people remain neglected. The current pension is 20 percent of the average salary, it's just enough to stop us dying of hunger." Others echo a similar sentiment: Tonya Fominyh, a 79-year-old pensioner, told the Guardian, "now our pensions means nothing [sic]." In addition, the small base pension rate is only periodically indexed to the price level. Given that inflation has been above 10 percent over the last five years, the purchasing power of these pension payments is being constantly eroded. Russia's population--in particular, its proportion of workers to pensioners--is also shrinking: the UN Population Division projects that the country's citizenry will fall from around 140 million people to around 108 million by 2050. This population dynamic poses additional challenges for Russia's pay-as-you-go pension system in the long term.

While the system has undergone gradual reform since 2001, continuing these efforts is necessary. In order for the government to ensure adequate living standards for its retired population, the Russian pension system requires initiatives that address the following challenges: the aging dynamic of Russia's population, the need for the pension system to provide adequate retirement income, and the proper role of the government in encouraging this reform.

Demographics

As with other countries around the world--including the United States--Russia's current pension system is pay-as-you-go: a portion of current taxation levied by the government on businesses is used to pay the benefits of current retirees. As long as the working population and wages have a positive growth rate, current workers can expect their future retirement benefits to be larger than the total tax they paid to social security as workers.

However, the population of Russia currently is shrinking. In 1992, the rate of natural decrease was 219,800 persons. The rate of natural decrease in the population since then has increased markedly and now hovers around 800,000 per year. As a result, the proportion of the population over the working age is now 20.4 percent, and the population under the working age has fallen as recently as 2005 to around 16.8 percent. Given that retirement benefits under Russia's pay-as-you-go pension system come solely from government taxation of then-current workers' wages, this presents a problem for the solvency of the Pension Fund of Russia (PFR), the government organization responsible for distributing payments.

Fundamental pension reform is probably the most economically and politically effective way of maintaining the solvency of the Pension Fund. …

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