Prague, 11 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russian trade unions yesterday organized their first nationwide street protests in several years, denouncing the government's economic reform plans as a blow to working families and the disadvantaged.
Protesters in about 300 cities and towns answered the rally call. Although turnout at individual demonstrations was relatively modest -- with the largest rallies numbering about 1,500 people -- this was the first coordinated protest President Vladimir Putin has had to face since coming to power four years ago.
And union leaders say that if their demands are not met, Russia could soon face a nationwide general strike.
"In order to obtain these benefits, we've had to work for more than 30 years. And what do we have now as a result? Nothing." -- Nizhnii Novgorod protester
Mikhail Shmakov, head of the Federation of Independent Unions, issued a warning in Moscow. "If nothing is done, this autumn there will be a large, Russia-wide strike," he said.
Demonstrators assailed several of the government's planned economic reforms, but the measure that came in for the greatest criticism is a draft bill that is due for its first reading in the State Duma on 2 July. The bill would eliminate subsidized utility fees, as well as discounted or free transportation passes for millions of Russians, replacing them with cash payments. Currently, veterans, the disabled, pensioners, employees of the armed forces, as well as low-income earners, qualify for these subsidies.
The government plans instead to compensate them with monthly payments of between 800 to 3,500 rubles ($30 to $120). The plan has drawn a wave of public criticism, with those potentially affected expressing worries that the cash payments -- which will not be indexed for inflation -- will soon lose their value and not cover expected hikes in utility and transportation prices. The Russian government, as part of its negotiations to join the World Trade Organization, has agreed to raise energy prices on its internal market.
With so much of the social safety net of the Soviet era already torn apart, many Russians consider the subsidies as one of the few remaining insurance policies in uncertain times. One woman demonstrator, who joined a rally in the city of Nizhnii Novgorod, expressed bitterness at the prospect of having her hard-won benefits suddenly disappear. "In order to obtain these benefits, we've had to work for more than 30 years," she said. "And what do we have now as a result? Nothing."
Her colleague agreed, advocating active resistance to block the government's plans: "I think we need to take more decisive measures. I am for an active struggle for our rights, blocking rail lines [if necessary]. Maybe then they will hear us." In addition to union laborers, the Nizhnii Novgorod demonstration was joined by teachers, students, and medical workers.
Speaking at a rally on the Far Eastern Kamchatka Peninsula, regional labor leader Andrei Zimin said the Kremlin's program to fight poverty risked becoming a "fight against the poor themselves." That sentiment was shared by one protester in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, who told RFE/RL that politicians' actions made a mockery of their high-minded words. She described the poverty that many face in rural Russia: "I don't understand our government's and president's policies. On television, they give speeches saying they are fighting poverty. But the result is the opposite. I come from a rural village. I am a schoolteacher. We have families who do not have enough money to buy bread for weeks at a time."
One indignant war veteran accused the authorities of trying to disenfranchise the elderly. "Veterans have earned these benefits! [The government doesn't] know what to do with pensioners. They are trying in any way they can to get rid of them as fast as possible," he said. "That's their main aim."
Yesterday's protests come amid a weeklong hunger strike by miners in Russia's southern Rostov region. The fast involves more than 60 miners demanding a year's worth of unpaid back wages.
Labor leader Shmakov has warned legislators that if they approve the government subsidy cut, they will be signing "their own death warrants." Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov later promised that a trilateral commission made up of ministers, legislators, and union leaders would try to reach agreement at a meeting next month.
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)