Russian police officers detain a demonstrator during a rally protesting retirement age hikes in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018. Image Credit: AP

Moscow: Hundreds of people were arrested in Russia on Sunday during nationwide protests against deeply unpopular pension reforms as the country voted in local elections.

Police arrested at least 839 people, mainly in Saint Petersburg and the Urals city of Ekaterinburg, who were taking part in demonstrations called by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, independent monitor OVD-info said.

At least 2,000 people rallied in central Moscow, an AFP correspondent said, as the capital held a mayoral election the Kremlin-backed incumbent was sure to win.

There were shouts of “Putin is a thief” and “Down with the Tsar” in the Moscow crowd.

“They’re spending money on the army in Syria, in Ukraine, for the president’s friends, but nothing for pensioners,” Olga Chenushka, a 44-year-old finance manager said.

Tatyana Rechetskaya, a 21-year-old primary school teacher, described the reforms as “the last straw, we can’t bear it”.

Plans to raise the state pension age to 60 for women and 65 for men has led to a rare outburst of public anger and seen President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings take a hit.

The hike, the first such move in nearly 90 years, would bring retirement more in line with the West, but critics point out a lower life expectancy means many will never see their pensions.

In Saint Petersburg, a largely young crowd of around 1,000 people shouted “shame” and held signs calling for Putin’s resignation.

“People are demanding the money they have earned. They have the right. But they’re even being denied the right to protests,” Irina Akopenkova, 47, told AFP in Russia’s second city.

Google removed Navalny’s advertisements for the rally at the request of the Russian authorities, a close aide of the opposition leader said at the weekend.

Moscow had previously warned the US internet giant against “meddling” in the election.

Google’s Russian office said it required advertisers to comply with local laws, in comments reported by news agencies.

Moscow mayor

The protest came as Russians voted to elect governors, local lawmakers and other officials.

The Moscow mayoral election was the highest-profile of the votes, but serious opposition candidates had been kept off the ballot paper in favour of incumbent Sergei Sobyanin.

The mayoral vote in the capital five years ago was the last time Russian politics came close to a major upset, with Navalny nearly forcing Sobyanin into a run-off.

This time round the only unknown factor was turnout, with authorities pushing for high participation to legitimise the 60-year-old apparatchik’s next term in city hall.

However two hours before the polls closed just 28 percent of voters had turned up, the electoral commission said.

The final results were expected on Monday morning.

In several Moscow polling stations there were scuffles between observers and police volunteers, OVD-info reported.

“With all the imperfections of the electoral system... this is still the way of expressing your opinion, your satisfaction or dissatisfaction with what’s going on in our city,” Nikita Romashka, a 41-year-old dentist, told AFP after voting in Moscow.

Supporters say Sobyanin has transformed the city with billion-dollar renovation projects that include a showpiece central park and new pedestrian areas along with a string of new metro stations.

But critics have argued these were a sop to a new urban middle class which has in the past protested against Putin’s rule, as the Kremlin continues to crack down on political freedoms.