The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 69/No. 4           January 31, 2005  
Thousands in Russia protest cuts in social wage
(front page)
Thousands of retirees and others protested in cities across Russia for more than a week in mid-January against government “reforms” that substitute miserly cash payments for a series of essential social entitlements. Demonstrators have blocked highways and demanded that the Kremlin “bring back everything” taken from them “and go.”

“Pensioners in several cities, angry at having to pay for public transport when the changes were introduced, fought with bus conductors and hijacked buses,” reported the Reuters news agency. “Many elderly people have to work to supplement their meager pensions and rely heavily on public transport to get to their jobs.”

President Vladimir Putin has stood by the measures to “monetize” social benefits, which took effect January 1. Faced with ongoing demonstrations, however, he has blamed other government officials for the consequences. “The motives for the decisions taken by the State Duma and the government are understandable. The question is how they are carried out in practice,” he said on national television January 17. “The government and regions have not completely carried out their task that we spoke of, which was to not make the situation of those who depend on state assistance any worse.” Putin also announced a hike in the monthly pension allotment as a means of staving off more protests.

Moscow is taking aim at a range of gains the toiling majority won after taking power in the 1917 Russian Revolution, abolishing capitalism, and establishing a workers state. Even though a parasitic layer whose foremost representative became Joseph Stalin betrayed the revolution in the 1920s, following the death of Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin, many of the social gains workers and farmers made lasted for decades. The Putin government is one of successive pro-capitalist administrations, which, since the shattering of the Stalinist apparatus in 1989-91, have met with resistance when they’ve pushed too far in their efforts to restore capitalist social relations.

The new measure, which was approved after heated debate in the parliament, or Duma, abolishes a number of benefits and will immediately effect one-quarter of Russia’s population of 144 million. Retirees, veterans, and the disabled will be denied access to free public transportation, and subsidies for housing, prescriptions, telephones, heating, electricity, water, and other services.

Rather than guarantee these services free of charge or provide them at substantial discounts because they are workers’ basic rights, Moscow promised instead to provide a monthly stipend that’s the equivalent of as little as $7. The government’s goal is to establish the bourgeois norm that housing, electricity, and the like are commodities available only to those who can afford to pay for them. The protesting retirees say the $7 stipend they will receive falls far short of covering these expenses, and will force them to have to choose between food, heat, and other necessities. Even the $7 has not reached all those to whom it was promised, according to media reports.

The focus of the protests so far has been around buses and trams, because the termination of free access to public transportation for some 35 million people is having the most immediate effect.

“Demonstrations by elderly pensioners that began in Moscow earlier this month continued in large cities and spread to Russia’s Far East and extreme north,” Moscow News reported January 18. An estimated 10,000 people took to the streets in St. Petersburg three days earlier. The same weekend 1,500 retirees blocked Nevsky Prospekt and Sadovaya Street, the city’s two main thoroughfares.

Local authorities were the first to grant concessions to the protesters. Officials in the Moscow region promised retirees they would restore their right to travel freely, and in St. Petersburg they announced subsidized travel passes would be provided, according to the Associated Press.

Seeking to take an edge off the demonstrations, Putin said in a January 18 speech that there would be a doubling of an already planned increase in pensions—about $8 per month—and that it would take effect March 1 instead of April 1.

Although the protests so far have targeted the Kremlin’s ending of free public travel for the elderly, disabled, and veterans, this is expected to change in the weeks ahead. That’s when working people will get hit with their first non-subsidized bills for water, heat, and electricity under the new legislation.  
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