Tue, Jan 18, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Retirees stage second day of dissent

AP , ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA

An elderly woman wearing a saucepan to draw attention to her protest shouts on Sunday in downtown St. Petersburg, Russia's second largest city, to protest against a recently passed law that strips retirees of Soviet-era benefits.

PHOTO: AP

Angry retirees demanding that their social benefits be restored staged a second day of protests in Russian President Vladimir Putin's home city, and along with protesters in other Russian cities demanded the president resign.

It has been the greatest public outburst of discontent since Putin took power five years ago. Top officials on Sunday tried to shift blame, accusing regional authorities of failing to implement the Kremlin-sponsored social reform properly.

Though St. Petersburg authorities promised to restore some benefits after 10,000 people flooded Russia's second-largest city on Saturday, about 1,000 demonstrators returned Sunday to rally on central Nevsky Prospect, paralyzing city traffic.

The protesters, most of them elderly, waved red flags, beat spoons against saucepans and chanted slogans calling for Putin to step down.

"We are here to demand the right to life," said Zhanna Filonova, 61.

The protests, which have spread to cities across Russia's 11 time zones, were triggered by a Jan. 1 law that gives retirees, the disabled and war veterans cash stipends instead of benefits such as free public medicine and transportation.

Many of the elderly, already feeling disenfranchised, considered the change a final insult after they were left struggling to survive on meager pensions in inflationary and capitalist Russia when the state welfare system collapsed with the Soviet Union in 1991.

"Prices keep rising, and now they have canceled our benefits," said Yevgeniya Sidorova, 70. "Putin and his government want us to lie down and wait for death to come."

Defending the social reform bill, First Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov and Parliament Speaker Boris Gryzlov blamed provincial authorities for the failure to deliver the promised cash stipends in full.

"It's quite natural that people are angry," Zhukov said on state-controlled Rossiya television late on Sunday.

Protesters say new monthly payments of about US$10 are worth much less than the benefits, leaving them to have to choose between food, transport and medicine.

Many pledged to keep protesting until benefits were returned and pensions were increased. An average monthly pension is now worth about US$80.

The rallies across Russian cities, many of which involved blockades of key highways, have put new pressure on Putin, who has seen little public protest in his tenure during which most citizens have either supported or simply accepted the Kremlin's initiatives.

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