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Russia: Many Can't See The Benefit In Controversial Social-Reform Bill

  • Jeremy Bransten

http://gdb.rferl.org/F641E64B-A374-4359-93DF-7F1FA09C50F5_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/F641E64B-A374-4359-93DF-7F1FA09C50F5_mw800_mh600.jpg Russia's upper house of parliament on 8 August followed the State Duma's lead and gave final approval to a controversial bill that will replace traditional, Soviet-era benefits for the elderly, veterans, invalids, and millions of others with cash payments. The bill passed despite opposition from many who fear the loss of special privileges in public transportation, health care, and other areas will not be sufficiently compensated by the government's money offer.

Prague, 9 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The bill passed by both chambers of Russia's parliament, which now awaits President Vladimir Putin's signature, represents a social revolution in a country where 30 million people have come to see special benefits as a fundamental right.

Assuming Putin signs the law, as expected, millions of Russian war veterans, the disabled, pensioners, orphans, those who cleaned up after the Chornobyl disaster, and scores of other special-interest groups will see their access to free medicine, public transportation, telephone calls, and sanatorium stays vanish on 1 January.

The benefits -- currently received by 20 percent of Russia's population -- will be replaced by cash payments ranging from the equivalent of $5-$50 per month.

Supporters of the bill -- which was originally submitted by the Kremlin -- argue that abolishing Russia's unwieldy system of social benefits will remove a major burden from the federal budget and speed the country's transition to a market economy, allowing all Russians to raise their standard of living.

Among the bill's backers is Nikolai Bulayev, head of the Duma's Education Committee. He told RFE/RL that many of those eligible for the current benefits can probably make better use of cash.

"Yes, the bill is painful, and it raises many doubts, but there is no other solution," Bulayev said. "I've lived most of my life in rural areas, and now I spend most of my time in the district center. I talk to local people, and most of them tell me, 'Give us more money. We are reasonable, and we'll know how to spend it.' As for the benefits everyone talks about -- maybe they're more useful in the cities. But in the villages, you can't use them. Not every grandmother can travel to the nearest pharmacy 40 kilometers away. So maybe the best medicine for her will be to have some decent food. Yes, some people will get a little bit less than before in terms of benefits. But overall, the vast majority -- and I am absolutely convinced of this -- will win out [with this bill]."

Some elderly supporters of the bill agree and showed their support outside the State Duma last week.

"Give us the money! Money, money, money, money -- hand it over! The more, the better," said one elderly woman. "We don't need benefits! Money, money -- and make it quick!"

But many others are more skeptical. For one, the cash payments that are due to replace the benefits will not be indexed for inflation, meaning they will lose value over time. With memories of the hyperinflation of the 1990s still fresh in everyone's minds, that is not an idle concern.
Assuming Putin signs the law, as expected, millions of Russian war veterans, the disabled, pensioners, orphans, those who cleaned up after the Chornobyl disaster, and scores of other special-interest groups will see their access to free medicine, public transportation, telephone calls, and sanatorium stays vanish on 1 January.


Another worry is that Russia's regions will be required to pay out 50 percent of the money, at a time when their own budgets are strained.

The Kremlin's aggressiveness in pushing the bill, and the fact that the 761-page document was approved by both houses of parliament in barely a week's time, has also led some to question the government's motives and whether many deputies have actually read what they voted to approve.

Duma Deputy Sergei Glazev, of the left-leaning Motherland faction, accuses the government of ridding itself of some of its key responsibilities -- at the expense of the country's most vulnerable social groups.

"Their political advantage comes from the fact that they have abdicated all social responsibility," said Glazev. "Now, these bureaucrats no longer need to measure their actions against the demands of the law. If earlier there were strict norms that had to be observed in terms of how much money went to education, health, culture, and science, today there is total bureaucratic arbitrariness. Those areas will get however much money is left over after all other expenses have been met. The federal center has shed its responsibility [for these areas]. That is their main political advantage."

Since the fall of communism, Russians have seen the social safety net upon which they once depended gradually fray, replaced by a cash economy. But few feel richer. The thought of cutting loose veterans -- those who once were most cherished by the system -- is going a step too far for some.

Many, including this young communist protester in Moscow, wonder why President Putin -- if he believes the bill is such a good idea -- signed a law last month exempting the country's 2 million federal employees from its provisions. They will retain all of their benefits.

"All the [potential] benefit recipients in my family -- those who should be getting benefits: my grandmother, her six brothers -- died in the war, defending this country," said a protester. "I am standing here for those who survived, for those who returned from the front, for those who toiled in the rear, for those who did not perish from work, for those who were not killed by a German bullet. I am here for them. They deserve far more than these benefits. But they are trying to take away even these paltry benefits! [Former President Boris] Yeltsin isn't having his benefits abolished. The bureaucrats are keeping their benefits. But pensioners, war veterans, labor veterans -- their benefits are being taken away!"

Lawmakers opposed to the reform, including deputies from the Motherland and Communist factions, have vowed to take their protest to Russia's Constitutional Court.
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