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Russians Continue To Protest Social Reforms


http://gdb.rferl.org/A28F630A-58A8-443B-807F-D84A4E19E04A_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/A28F630A-58A8-443B-807F-D84A4E19E04A_mw800_mh600.jpg Protests continued today in St. Petersburg and elsewhere across Russia 16 January 2005 -- Retirees continued their protests against social-benefit reforms today in what many regard as the most serious public challenge to official policy since President Vladimir Putin took office five years ago.

Thousands of pensioners have staged protest marches in many cities -- including the capital Moscow and President Putin's home city of St. Petersburg -- during the past week against the change from in-kind benefits to cash payments.

A demonstration in St. Petersburg yesterday reportedly gathered up to 10,000 people -- making it the largest protest to date for the restoration of social benefits that were abolished on 1 January. Similar protests were continuing today in Russian cities across the country.

RFE/RL's correspondent in the southern Russian city of Stavropol reported that several thousand pensioners also blocked traffic in the center of that city today to demand that the reforms be reversed.

The Spark

The rallies were triggered by a new law that took effect on 1 January. That law eliminated years-old benefits for retirees, war veterans, the disabled, and others. Some 32 million individuals are now responsible for paying the full cost of their housing maintenance. They also have seen their right to free rides on public transport eliminated.

Under the new law, those benefits have been replaced by cash payments -- the so-called monetization of benefits.

But the demonstrators complain that their housing costs -- as well as the price for tickets on public buses and trains -- rose on 1 January. And they say the new payments are insufficient compensation.

AP described yesterday's demonstrations in St. Petersburg as the largest show of discontent in Russia during Putin's nearly five-year tenure as president. Analysts said that in the past, most citizens have either supported or simply accepted new initiatives from the Kremlin. But yesterday, angry protesters in St. Petersburg called for Putin to step down while others chanted "revolution."

Official Responses

Responding to the growing size of the protests during the past week, Moscow regional officials have begun to heed some of the demands of demonstrators -- at least temporarily.

Andrei Barkovskii, a spokesman for Moscow regional governor Boris Gromov, said free rides on public transportation will be restored for pensioners in Moscow Oblast. Other regional officials reportedly were ordering similar benefits to be maintained for the time being.

Moscow's regional legislature yesterday acknowledged the protesters' demands by pledging to work during the next week to raise pensions.

In Moscow suburbs, hundreds of retirees have repeatedly blocked highways and paralyzed traffic during the past week. Correspondents said about 1,000 pensioners gathered yesterday under red flags on Moscow's northwestern fringe to call for the dismissal of the Moscow regional governor.

One of those demonstrators, retired engineer Mikhail Yermakov, told "The New York Times" that the demonstrations are spontaneous and could prove politically dangerous for officials in Moscow. Yermakov said President Putin and the party that dominates parliament, Unified Russia, is facing what he called a political "tsunami."

Dangerous Legacy?

Putin and the leadership of United Russia have defended the new law as an important reform to end a vestige of the old Soviet system.

But analysts said they clearly failed to anticipate the depth of opposition from those who rely most on subsidies -- the millions of Russians who live on pensions of less than $100 a month.

The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Aleksii II, also has questioned the law and the government's handling of the reforms.

State Duma Deputy Aleksei Kondaurov (Communist) said the law and the protests underscore the shortcomings of the political system that has evolved under President Putin during the past five years. He complained that the Unified Russia party refuses to even debate issues with opposition parties, let alone compromise with them.

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko reportedly met with some protesters in St. Petersburg yesterday and promised to issue travel passes at subsidized prices to help ease the reform. She also spoke to Putin to inform him about the protests. Although Putin was in St. Petersburg yesterday, he did not make any public appearances.

Governor Matvienko said Russian authorities should have given people a choice between keeping their benefits or replacing them with cash payments.

(from wire reports)
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