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A protest against the benefits reform in Moscow last year
For four days in a row, pensioners across cities and towns in Russia have staged public protests -- in many cases blocking major thoroughfares -- demanding that a new system of cash payments for social benefits such as free medicine be overturned. The new system took effect on 1 January, but due to the long New Year's holidays most Russians didn't feel the pinch until 10 January. According to Andrei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technology, their resulting anger has sparked a wave of public protests on the scale of which Russia hasn't seen since the 1998 coal miners' strikes, "Vedomosti" reported on 12 January.
The chief demand of retirees in cities as diverse as Penza, Samara, Tolyatti, Kursk, Barnaul, Moscow, Izhevsk, Ufa, Sterlitamak, and Almetevsk, is that free public transportation be reinstituted. Residents of Khimki organized one of the most effective protests, blocking a key transportation route to the city of Moscow on 10 January for several hours. A Khimki retiree explained to "Gazeta" on 11 January that she was given only 200 rubles cash compensation for the loss of free travel privileges, while the cost of one round-trip visit to her health clinic is 46 rubles. In Samara, retirees were given 126 rubles a month, which will cover the cost of only 18 one-way trips. The response of riders has not been passive acceptance: Dozens of conductors across the country have reportedly been assaulted, according to Channel 3 on 11 January. In Cherkessk, a senior citizen beat up a female tram conductor, who was demanding his fare, with his crutches, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 12 January.
On 13 January, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov finally weighed in on the growing controversy. He told ministers at a government session that although these "problems are now the responsibility of local administrations, people are looking for protection, so to speak, and primarily from the center, so we have to get involved here, take an active part, and where possible help to reduce the tension." Fradkov's comments echo earlier remarks of State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov and other members of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party shifting responsibility to regional authorities for the rocky transition to the new system. State Duma Chairman of the Labor and Social Policy Committee Andrei Isaev (Unified Russia) was quoted on RTR and by ITAR-TASS on 11 January blaming local authorities for the negative reaction the reform has received. He said that monetary compensation must be equal to the benefits that are being replaced and that a number of regional authorities are in breach of this requirement. "We will ask the prosecutors to check into this," he said.
Who's To Blame?
However, it's unclear that either the expert community -- or more importantly -- the public are buying this argument. Ekho Moskvy reported on 13 January that a pensioner from the town of Reutovo in Moscow Oblast has sent his 250 ruble compensation payment to President Putin in protest. And the station reported the previous day that, according to one of its express opinion polls, some 97 percent of 9,686 callers believe that Putin and the government are responsible for the crisis brought about by reforming the benefits systems, and only 3 percent believe that the governors and mayors are responsible. Of course, the listenership of Ekho Moskvy is hardly representative of Russia as a whole. But even such Kremlin stalwarts as ORT commentator Mikhail Leontev has described the social benefits reform as a "provocation" orchestrated by people inside the government who are plotting to undermine Russia's leadership, apn.ru reported on 11 January.
Meanwhile, more independent analysts have pinned the lion's share of the blame for the current snafu on the federal government. According to Sergei Smirnov of the Institute for Social Policy at the Higher Economic School, federal authorities did not discuss the reform plan with the regions, did not define precisely who was responsible for what, and did not explain the details of the plan to benefit recipients, "Vedomosti" reported on 12 January. "Kommersant-Daily" concluded on 12 January that the widespread discontent over the elimination of free public transportation for pensioners was "entirely predictable." "The wave of protests might have been averted if this benefit had been retained at the federal level," the daily continued. "However, creating the new system of funding public transportation required the participation of all regions, and thousands of transport enterprises. Therefore, the government -- which was preparing for monetization in an artificially induced hurry -- preferred to simply 'forget' about the problem."