Mon, Jan 17, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Russian reforms spark an uprising

TO THE STREETS Pensioners, veterans and the disabled joined street protests across Russia after they started to feel the pinch from cuts to social benefits

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , KHIMKI, RUSSIA

Thousands of Russian pensioners stand blocking Moscovsky avenue during a rally in St. Petersburg, Saturday. A woman holds a poster reading 'Vladimir Putin!

PHOTO: EPA

Mikhail Yermakov, a retired engineer, has never before taken to the streets to protest -- not when the Soviet Union collapsed, the wars in Chechnya began, the ruble plummeted in 1998 or President Vladimir Putin last year ended his right to choose his governor.

On Saturday, however, he joined hundreds of others in the central square of this gritty industrial city on the edge of Moscow in the latest of a week-long wave of protests across Russia against a new law abolishing a wide range of social benefits for the country's 32 million pensioners, veterans and people with disabilities.

Demonstrations were conducted in at least three other cities in the Moscow region, in the capital of Tatarstan and, for the fourth consecutive day, in Samara in central Russia.

In St. Petersburg, several thousand demonstrators blocked the city's main boulevard, with some calling for Putin's resignation.

Taken together, the protests are the largest and most passionate since Putin came to power in 2000. They appear to have tapped into discontent with Putin's government and the party that dominates the Russian legislature, United Russia.

"It is spontaneous, and this is the most dangerous thing for the authorities," Yermakov, 67, said, as speakers denounced the government from a step beneath a hulking bust of Lenin.

"It is a tsunami, and United Russia does not understand that it is going to hit them," he added.

The law, which took effect on Jan. 1, replaced benefits like free public transportation and subsidies for housing, prescriptions, telephones and other basic services with monthly cash payments starting at a little more than US$7.

In a sign of bureaucratic inefficiency, some of those eligible have yet to receive any payments.

Putin and United Russia's leaders have defended the law as an important reform ending a vestige of the old Soviet communist system, but they clearly failed to anticipate the depth of opposition from those who relied most on the subsidies: millions of Russians living on pensions of less than US$100 a month.

The protesters have denounced the new payments as insufficient to cover the cost of the benefits and as miserly for a country that recently reported a budget surplus of nearly US$25 billion.

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