By Andrew Osborn and Andrey Ostroukh
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday he was cutting a proposed retirement age for women from 63 to 60 years as he watered down draft legislation to reform the pensions system which has hurt his popularity and stirred protests.
In a TV address, Putin, who once promised to never raise the retirement age, took responsibility for the first time for the reforms which he said were needed to protect state finances, ensure stability in society and safeguard national security.
Proposed reforms put forward by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's government had envisaged raising the retirement age to 65 from 60 for men and to 63 from 55 for women.
The issue has proved politically sensitive for Putin, who was re-elected in March, and prompted protests across Russia after it was announced on June 14, the day Russia played the first match of its soccer World Cup.
Opinion polls show that around 90 percent of the population oppose the government's original proposals. The issue contributed to driving Putin's popularity rating down to 67 from 80 percent earlier this year, according to the Levada Centre pollster, its lowest since before Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.
In his TV address Putin put his name to changes to the pensions system, but he said he was softening parts of the reform, including cutting the proposed retirement age for women by three years to 60.
"The demographic development and labour market trends and an objective analysis of the situation show that we can't put this off any longer," said Putin. "But our decisions must be fair, balanced and absolutely take into account people's interests."
"That's why I am proposing a raft of measures that will allow us to soften the decisions taken as much as possible."
"We have a special, caring attitude to women in our country," he added, explaining his move to soften the blow for women.
Putin's spokesman has said the Russian leader is unfazed by fluctuations in his popularity but had decided to act on the pensions question because of its importance.
Having highlighted that Russia currently spends 20 billion roubles ($293.13 million) a day to pay pensions, Putin outlined other specific change proposals to the pension system related to the different groups of Russians, such as women with several children, and others.
Adjustments to the pension reform proposed by Putin would cost the state budget a around 500 billion roubles over the next six years and would "require adjustments to ... budget plans," Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said.
'THREAT TO STABILITY'
It was not immediately clear if Putin's intervention would be enough to defuse public anger. But state television, the main source of news for most Russians, presented his intervention in a positive light, as did politicians from the ruling United Russia party.
Raising the retirement age would allow the government to pay out bigger pensions, whose current size he described as modest. The government says the average monthly pension will be 14,414 roubles ($212) by the end of the year.
Putin said the draft legislation, which is going through the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, would be amended to reflect his own ideas in the near future.
He listed several ways of raising money to fund the current pension system in order to delay reform, but said all of them would only work in the short term. Further out, they would end up destroying the economy, which has been battered by years of Western sanctions.
"In the long term, if we hesitate now, it could threaten stability in society and hence national security," said Putin.
Putin's political opponents, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, have tried to tap into public anger over the proposed changes by organising protests.
A court sentenced Navalny to 30 days in jail on Monday after convicting him of breaking public protest laws, a move he said was illegal and aimed at stopping him leading a rally against pension reform next month.
(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Katya Golubkova, Tom Balmforth and Darya Korsunskaya; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth)