Fri, Aug 06, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Russia to abolish Soviet-era benefits

AP , MOSCOW

A bandaged Russian Yabloko party demonstrator shouts out slogans in central Moscow at a protest rally on Tuesday against a plan to convert certain benefits for the elderly into cash payments. The poster reads ``No to Social Benefits Ban!''

PHOTO: REUTERS

A bill to end an array of Soviet-era benefits for the elderly and disabled, including free transportation and medicine, was approved by the lower house of Russia's parliament yesterday, making the measure almost certain to become law.

The government-backed legislation was approved 309-118 in the 450-seat State Duma, which is dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. Communist and nationalist legislators vehemently opposed it.

"This law contradicts the constitution and is against the people," said Communist lawmaker Valentin Romanov.

A small group of elderly protesters stood across the street from the Duma building, but the gathering was far smaller than large protests that had gathered in weeks against the legislation.

With the Duma's approval, the measure now goes to the Federation Council, the upper chamber that is seen as largely a rubber-stamp mechanism for the Kremlin. The council is expected to approve the bill on Sunday, after which it would be presented to President Vladimir Putin to be signed into law.

The measure calls for ending many of the long-standing benefits received by tens of millions of Russia's most vulnerable citizens, including the elderly, the disabled and World War II veterans, and to replace them with cash payments.

The government says the move to strip many of the Soviet-era benefits is a key step toward streamlining a lumbering bureaucracy and will be a boon to many. But recipients are outraged at what they see as abandonment by the state they served.

"The benefits have been given by the state to those who have deserved them by labor or heroic deeds and taking them away is like spitting in people's faces," said Valentina Ivanova, 67, a demonstrator.

"What they are doing is putting us in our coffins alive," she said.

The bill affects an estimated 30 million people, who constitute Russia's most vulnerable population segments.

It eliminates free access to urban transportation, free home phone use for local calls, free provision of artificial limbs, job guarantees for the disabled and, for many, free medicine. In return, they'll get monthly cash payments ranging from 1,550 rubles (US$53) down to 150 rubles (US$5.10).

Proponents of the bill say substituting cash for benefits will make aid more accurately targeted -- arguing, for example, that public transportation is scarce in rural areas.

But opponents have a raft of arguments: cash payments are vulnerable to inflation, the notoriously inefficient Russian authorities may fall months behind in the payments and the cash payments won't be enough to make up for the losses.

Under a so-called "social package" provision, medicine and some other benefits such as suburban train transport will be provided. But recipients of the social package will have 450 rubles (US$15.50) a month deducted from their new compensation payments; it is also not clear whether all the medicines currently provided free would be included in the package.

This story has been viewed 3410 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top