January 13 marked the fourth consecutive day of protests against the replacement of Soviet-era social benefits with cash payments. Demonstrations took place in cities across Russia, including Moscow Oblast, Izhevsk (the capital of Udmurtia), Kursk, Samara, Penza, and Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, where several thousand people gathered (Vremya novostei, January 14).
Until December 31 of last year, pensioners, war veterans, and the handicapped received a variety of benefits, including free transportation, free medicines, free annual treatment at sanatoriums and health resorts, free local telephone service, and discounts on residential utilities. In line with Kremlin-authored legislation, these benefits have been replaced by cash payments ranging from the ruble equivalent of $15 to $100 (Reuters, January 13). Recipients complain that the cash payments are far less than the value of their old benefits.
While many of the demonstrations across the country have ranged in number from several dozen to several hundred — consisting mainly of pensioners, the group that has perhaps been most affected by the changes — some protests have numbered in the thousands: according to one report, more than 8,000 people in the Bashkortostan city of Sterlitamak blocked the road in front of the city administration, demanding that the changes be rescinded (Novaya gazeta, January 13). Pensioners across the country have complained about being forced to pay fares or being thrown off buses or trams (Ren TV, January 13). The Novy Region news agency reported on January 13 that there had been 40 attacks by passengers on bus conductors in the city of Tula. Meanwhile, pensioners in Izhevsk plan to begin the procedure to recall the city’s two deputies in the State Duma, Svetlana Smirnova and Yevgeny Bogomolnyi, who are members of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.
The outbreak of protests and social tensions has led to an outbreak of governmental buck-passing. Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov told a cabinet meeting on January 13 that “problems have appeared in the social sphere, which are, actually, the responsibility of the regions” and that the changes should be better explained to the public in order “to help ease tensions arising mostly at the level of psychological perceptions” (Moscow Times, January 13). The regional governors, for their part, have responded to the protests by, as Vremya novostei put it, “shifting responsibility for the repeal of free travel on city transportation on the municipalities. That is, they acted like the federal authorities did in shifting responsibility onto the regional authorities.” There has been some backtracking: Moscow Oblast authorities, for example, say they are negotiating with the Moscow city government to reinstate free public transport in the capital for pensioners and war veterans (RIA-Novosti, January 13). Other regional and municipal governments have announced the restoration of some benefits, at least in part and for a time. These measures, however, are “doomed to failure,” Vremya novostei predicted, because local budgets simply do not have the funds to cover the cost.
The protest wave has put United Russia, the only major political party that is backing the reforms, on the defensive, while energizing the wide spectrum of political parties and groups that oppose them. As Nezavisimaya gazeta put it on January 13, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) “hurried” to claim a “leading role” in the demonstrations and promised to mobilize thousands of its supporters to protest the changes over the next two weeks. Perhaps more significantly, Rodina (Motherland), the left-nationalist party widely believed to have been formed with Kremlin help, has also vowed to lead social protests. “We will no longer debate with United Russia in the State Duma,” Rodina leader Dmitry Rogozin said. “This is useless. The opposition is forced onto the streets where it will lead to a protest movement.” Rogozin said opposition to rescinding the benefits could lead to national protests similar to those in Ukraine, while another leading member of Rodina, Oleg Shein, said he expected a sharp surge in protests in late January and early February, when it is time to pay utility bills. “After that, the events will acquire larger proportions and become more dynamic,” Shein predicted (RIA-Novosti, January 13).
Liberal parties like Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko and leading liberal politicians like independent State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov also oppose the social benefits reform. Writing in the January 13 edition of Novaya gazeta, Ryzhkov rejected the federal authorities’ attempts to deflect the dissatisfaction onto the regional authorities, insisting that “more than 60% of the country’s revenues are in the hands of Putin, Fradkov, and the State Duma, while the regions and the cities and villages together have only a bit more than a third.”
Strikingly, a pillar of post-Soviet Russian society, the Orthodox Church, has also voiced its opposition to the social benefits reform. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II said, “The principle of fairness is not fulfilled” in the laws replacing benefits with cash payments and demanded that people be given “as soon as possible what they are due by law and supreme moral right” (Kommersant, January 14). Alexei’s comments were “an extremely alarming signal,” the APN news agency commented. “The Church traditionally maintains neutrality in relation to the state. According to an internal Church statute, priests are forbidden from participating in political activities. However, it is no secret that the Russian Orthodox Church’s parishioners are mainly elderly people. Clearly, the monetization of benefits hit church-going people so hard that even the traditionally politically-neutral Patriarch was forced to intervene in the situation and call upon the government to reflect on the consequences of the social reforms that have been carried out” (APN, January 13). In addition, Russian Air Force commander General Vladimir Mikhailov criticized the changes, which also took away benefits from servicemen, saying that they have dealt a blow above all to “young officers” who receive small salaries (Kommersant, January 14).
Some observers believe that the protest could mark the start of a serious political crisis for President Vladimir Putin. Yevgeny Kiselev, editor-in-chief of Moskovskie novosti and a member of the Committee 2008-Free Choice democratic opposition group, said that the protests over the abolition of the social benefits, coming on the heels of last September’s Beslan school hostage seizure, the failure of the Kremlin’s policy vis-a-vis Ukraine, the “scandalous shady deal with Yuganskneftegaz,” and the “unprecedented complication of relations with the West,” has left a “smell of crisis in the air.” The Kremlin may respond by resorting to “loud denunciations and punishments of enemies of the people again,” Kiselev wrote. “Last time, the oligarchs were designated as the enemies. Now. . . in the year of the twentieth anniversary of the start of perestroika, the leaders of the democratic movement of the end of the 1980s-beginning of the 1990s could be chosen as the target. At any rate, I know for certain that the idea of calling to account ‘those guilty of the collapse of a great nation’ has been seriously discussed in influential circles” (Mn.ru, January 14).