Prague, 17 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of pensioners across Russia are staging protests, marking the first major outcry against President Vladimir Putin's policies. And experts warn it may just be the beginning.
A rally in St. Petersburg, Putin's home city, appeared to be the largest protest so far. More than 10,000 people gathered there on 15 January, paralyzing transport in the center of the city. Some of its participants called on Putin to step down, others chanted "revolution."
Today, the demonstrations spread to Siberia. Reports said that about 1,000 people blocked the government center of Khabarovsk and double that number demonstrated in the streets of Angarsk. Angry crowds also took to the streets in Ussuriisk as well as on the island of Sakhalin.
So far, Putin has not made any public comments. But analysts predict top officials might be fired for mishandling the reform. And they warn that the rallies could develop into a major challenge for the president.
"I think that the Kremlin finds itself in a rather serious situation as we see only the beginning, only the first wave of social protest," said Nikolay Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It may go up, especially taking into account that now people are only reacting to the cancellation to transport benefits. In the end of the month and in the beginning of February they will see that the price for the utilities also went up."
Pensioners make up a substantial part of Russian population, with some 32 million people being affected by the recent reforms. Petrov said that in many regional cities pensioners make up some 25 or 35 percent of the population. He pointed out that these elderly people are so angry that they are ready to take radical actions, such as blocking public transport.
Petrov sees the protests as the result of more than just stripping benefits for pensioners. He said Putin has started to push several unpopular moves at once and wants to implement them in a year or two. Also, the reforms are being implemented at a time when an administrative shake-up is not complete and both central and local authorities are partly paralyzed.
Petrov said these problems are costing Putin. Figures released last week by the Moscow-based Levada Analytical Center show that only 39 percent of Russians consider Putin a trusted politician, down from 58 percent a year ago.
Some 32 million people are affected by the recent reforms.
"It is a fact which causes big concern," Petrov said. "It is troublesome not only for Putin and his regime but also for the whole country, because only [public support for Putin] is a kind of guarantee for relative political stability. If suddenly this support goes down, stability will also disappear."
Kirill Koktysh of the Moscow Institute of International Relations said he agrees that the recent protests suggest that Russian authorities and society are drifting apart.
"The problem can be named as a quick alienation of authorities and society," Koktysh said. "[Many] development opportunities are lost as well as possibilities to administer the country effectively with the agreement of society."
Koktysh said planned reforms in education and medical services are likely to cause even more serious and broader resistance.
"A big chunk of the population -- big from the statistical point of view, because it makes up some 35-40 percent of people younger than 35 -- are very concerned and look very negatively on the upcoming introduction of paid medical services [mainly paid drugs] and education reform," Koktysh said. "I think that in the future, the middle class will join protesting pensioners."
Under proposed education reforms, students will not receive automatic deferment from military service.
Meanwhile, the pensioners' protests are bringing concessions. Moscow authorities bowed to the demands of protestors by restoring -- for now -- some of their state benefits, such as free public transportation and subsidized medicine.