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Hard on the heels of a humiliating political defeat in the presidential election in Ukraine, the Kremlin is now facing another serious crisis, this one even closer to home. For weeks now, the country has been wracked by growing social unrest in opposition to the government's reform to convert most in-kind social benefits to cash payments, which has been widely criticized as ill considered and poorly implemented.
According to media reports, more than two-thirds of the subjects of the federation have seen protests and demonstrations by pensioners, the disabled, public-sector workers, and other benefits recipients. In some cases, protestors blocked highways and rail lines or took over regional-administration buildings. In many cases, the protests were apparently spontaneous, but the Communist Party has claimed to be organizing the demonstrations.
In addition, speaking to journalists in Moscow on 27 January, Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov said that his party has collected the 90 Duma deputy signatures required to force the chamber's leadership to include a motion of no confidence in the government in the Duma's agenda, gazeta.ru and other Russian media reported. Zyuganov said that in addition to Communist deputies, the Motherland faction is backing the initiative, as well as 15-18 independent deputies.
Although a no-confidence measure has no chance of passing without the support of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, which controls a majority of the seats in the chamber, holding such a vote would put Unified Russia is the awkward position of having openly to support the unpopular benefits reform, gazeta.ru commented on 27 January.
At a recent meeting of the government's Council on Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship, participants concluded that the main reason for the unrest and for the slowdown in economic growth generally is a crisis of confidence, a loss of public trust in the government, "Vremya novostei" reported on 28 January. A similar view was expressed by Higher Economics School head and former Economy Minister Yevgenii Yasin, who was quoted by the daily as saying, "We are seeing a textbook example of how economic growth that seemed to be working so well can be destroyed."
Economist and Institute of Globalization Director Mikhail Delyagin said he thinks the present situation, including the widespread unrest, is the result of infighting between the so-called siloviki, or people connected to the security apparatus, and such liberal ministers as Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref. Delyagin called the latter "liberal fundamentalists" in a 14 January interview with RosBalt. Delyagin added that the dismantling of the social safety net "is not only the result a liberal reforms, but also of the blind aggression of the silovik oligarchy, an aggression that is spreading from the business community to society as a whole." "It is an open secret that a considerable portion of those agencies that we more and more often call 'siloviki' and less and less often call 'law enforcement organs' perceive the citizenry of Russia as a legitimate target for looting," Delyagin said.
Delyagin said that the Putin regime has declared war not only against business and society, but also against the regional elites, which it has stripped of political influence without giving anything in return. "I think the protests, which are continuing all over the country, are partly generated by regional administrations, which feel that they have been robbed by the benefits-reform process," Delyagin said. "Since they are afraid to confront Moscow openly, they pretend that the protests are only the voice of the people and are in no hurry to silence it."
National Strategy Institute Director Stanislav Belkovskii told APN on 27 January that the unrest is evidence of a systemic crisis confronting the Putin regime. He said the protests demonstrate how illusory and ephemeral the Russian system of power is and prove that the authorities can neither govern the people nor communicate with them. He added that the regime has already demonstrated this problem in the cases of the August 2000 sinking of the "Kursk" nuclear submarine, the October 2003 hostage taking at a Moscow theater, and the September 2004 hostage drama at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. However, he added, the current unrest even more graphically demonstrates that the Putin regime is not unshakable.
Belkovskii added that the response to the protests proves that the regime fears only direct actions of this sort. It is impossible to outmaneuver the country's oligarchic-bureaucratic machine, but only to pressure it, Belkovskii said.
Belkovskii said that in October, a member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation told him that if Ukrainian presidential hopeful Viktor Yushchenko can bring at least 100,000 people out onto the streets of Kyiv, the issue of power in Ukraine will be settled regardless of other factors. Time has shown that he was right, Belkovskiii said, adding that anyone who can bring 300,000 people out onto the streets of Moscow can similarly take power in Russia. Therefore, he concluded, the street will remain the main tool of the political struggle in Russia for the next two years.
The government was unprepared for the protests and chose to treat its own citizens like "cattle," Belkovskii said. He quoted a Unified Russia Duma deputy as saying that "the tougher the laws are that the government adopts, the less people protest against them." Belkovskii said the regime placed its stake on public apathy and was convinced that there would be no massive protests. For this reason, the government is responsible for the crisis and should be dismissed.
Belkovskii added, though, that President Vladimir Putin does not consider the benefits reform itself a mistake. Therefore, Kudrin, Gref, and Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov will remain in government in one capacity or another. However, the president will most likely have to make some sort of gesture to quell the unrest and the most likely victim will be the cabinet of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.
Demonstrators have already been seen carrying signs calling for Putin to resign and even bearing slogans such as "Putin Is Worse Than Hitler." Although Putin often tries to avoid tough personnel decisions, Belkovskii said, he will need to do something to appease the public. The most likely scapegoat will be Fradkov, Belkovskii said, not because of the reform fiasco himself, but because he has avoided taking public responsibility for the crisis and has thereby exposed Putin to criticism.