Prague, 18 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- For months, Russian pensioners, veterans, and advocates for the disabled have been complaining loudly about a government move to replace key social benefits with cash payments.
Given that pensioners alone make up a third of the population in some Russian cities, the protests that have overwhelmed many urban centers in recent days should not have come as a surprise.
But local authorities and politicians at the federal level -- including President Vladimir Putin -- appear to have been caught off guard. Russia is now in the throes of the largest social protests since Putin came to office five years ago and everyone seems to be trying to foist the blame on someone else.
Yesterday, thousands of pensioners in the cities of Vologda, Khabarovsk, Ussurisk, and Kazan took to the streets again to demand a return to free bus passes, medical care, and subsidized rents. As protesting retirees in Kazan noted, the paltry cash compensation the government is offering barely covers the cost of food.
"Our pensions should be four-five times bigger because of the level of inflation," one unidentified man said. "We go to the store and who can buy anything? The store has turned into a museum. A museum! You buy bread, milk, and you have no money left for anything else. Don't go to the public baths, don't take public transportation!"
A female protestor added, "My pension is 1,700 rubles [$60]! How can you live on that?"
The protests have sent politicians into damage-control mode. Moscow authorities have promised to restore free public transportation and subsidized medicine for pensioners. Yesterday, officials in Vologda also pledged do the same.
Putin said yesterday that benefit recipients should be allowed to choose whether to accept cash compensation or free transportation passes. He criticized federal and regional authorities for bungling the reform.
But will this assuage the protestors or has Putin made a fatal misstep that will cost him permanent support?
Political analyst Nikolai Petrov, of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the Kremlin has a real crisis on its hands. Blaming the regions -- which are proving unable to shoulder the financial burden of the new system -- will not fix matters. Neither will public-relations gimmicks.
"My pension is 1,700 rubles [$60]! How can you live on that?" -- protestor
With calls by the Communists and the nationalist Motherland Party for the government's resignation, speculation is growing that Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov may be offered up as a sacrificial scapegoat.
But Petrov doubts this will stop the protests.
"It seems to me we are dealing with a serious a deepening political crisis," Petrov said. "And if the government -- as it now appears -- cannot adequately react to citizens' demands, it could lead to a crisis of confidence in the president."
Petrov said that while Putin has proven adept at liquidating his political opposition as well as the institutions that limit the power of the presidency, he forgot about Russia's people.
"The Kremlin prepared well in terms of its relations with the elites, by weakening political parties and weakening the governors," Petrov said. "But now the Kremlin has to deal with masses of citizens and this is much more complicated. And I think they did not take this factor into account while planning this action."
Galina Belkova of the Movement for Citizens' Initiatives in St. Petersburg said that if Putin and his team had been listening to their constituents, they would have realized that a system of benefits that almost half the population relies on couldn't be dismantled in one go.
"They touched so many issues all at once," Belkova said. "If this were just one set of reforms -- but here we are talking about medical care, public transport, housing. All of these issues should have been tackled separately, gradually and carefully."
But as others have noted, Putin is hardly the first Russian ruler to have used his concentrated political power to attempt to launch sweeping, top-down reforms aimed at modernizing the country. These efforts rarely go as planned and often peter out after running into inertia or popular revolt.
Petrov believes Putin has fallen into a trap many had predicted awaited him. By usurping all power and eliminating normal channels of opposition in the political system, the Kremlin has lost an important "safety valve" and cut itself off from public opinion.
"One would like to believe that the main lesson the Kremlin learns from this is that it is much more effective and advantageous for it to support the existence of a functioning political opposition, of legitimate channels of opposition in parliament and the participation of such an opposition in the decision-making process, rather than having to deal with such mass social protests, which can lead to an explosion," Petrov said.
But whether Putin will draw the same conclusions remains unclear.
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report)