Moscow, 13 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- “Gagarin studied for free,” the students chanted at the rally, which coincided with the popular Soviet-era Cosmonauts Day.
Some 4,000 students gathered yesterday outside government buildings in Moscow to protests education reform recently announced by the government.
Under the reform, Russian students, who now study for free at state universities, could soon have to pay for their studies. The bill also slashes social benefits for students such as medical treatment and subsidized transport fees.
A student protester addressing the crowd at the rally said the reform would discriminate against students who come from poorer backgrounds. He also called for the government to increase teachers’ wages, which many consider to be low.
“We demand the raise of [monthly] student stipends to twice the subsistence wage, the at least twofold increase of teachers’ salary, decent living conditions in student campuses," the student said. "We protest against the reforms that divide students into the white, who can pay for their studies, and the black, who can’t afford it.”
In an attempt to calm the situation, Russian Education Minister Andrei Fursenko has pledged that the state would offer financial help to high-performing and poorer students.
But this has failed to soothe the angry students. The rally ended with demands for the dismissal of the government and, in particular, of Fursenko.
“The government, particularly the presidential administration, is incapable of developing decent youth policies and setting up normal youth organizations that are not politicized but aimed at helping our generation to evolve." -- young activist
Students in Russia receive as little as 400 rubles ($14) per month in state grants, a sum that President Vladimir Putin has vowed to increase to 500 rubles from 1 April.
But Oleg Denisov, the head of the Russian Association of Students' Unions, says the raise, however small, has yet to be implemented. According to him, the introduction of student fees will only serve to make Russia poorer in a country where over 20 percent of the population already lives under the poverty line.
“The government considers education as belonging to the service sector and therefore thinks that as a service it has to be paid for. We view education as a profitable investment in the future of the government. Without this investment, the government will not be able to survive and to meet challenges in the future,” Denisov said.
The student protests come on the heels of massive demonstrations staged by pensioners earlier this year. The pensioners were protesting against the monetization of Soviet-era benefits such as free transport and medicine. Pensioners, the majority of whom live below the poverty line, had demonstrated for weeks in sub-zero temperatures.
The protests slowly fizzled out after Putin increased pensions for the retired and set up a system that, de facto, restored some of the benefits. But now, it’s the students who want change.
Aleksandr Korsunov is a young Russian who recently set up an Internet-based youth protest group called skaji.net, or “say no.” He said young people in Russia feel neglected by the state. He accuses the pro-government youth group Nashi, or “Ours,” of merely seeking to promote the state’s interests.
“The government, particularly the presidential administration, is incapable of developing decent youth policies and setting up normal youth organizations that are not politicized but aimed at helping our generation to evolve. Of course young people are not happy about this and want to be given more attention,” Korsunov said.
Like many young Russians, Korsunov said he was inspired to create his group by the recent mass protests that toppled the government in Ukraine and in Kyrgyzstan.