Thousands of Retirees Protest Russian Pension Cutbacks
January 16, 2005
Elderly protesters gather under red flags in the Moscow suburb of Khimki on Saturday in a rally against a recently passed law that strips them of Soviet-era benefits.
In the former Leningrad some in the huge crow called for Putin, the former KGB operative, to resign. The group in the Moscow gathered under red flags - the color of the Soviet Union - amid cries of "Down with Putin!"
"Putin's policy is that of a genocide," said Mikhail Kononov, an elderly St. Petersburg protester. "The government is waiting for all of us to die." The protests were triggered by the Jan. 1 law that gives retirees, the disabled and war veterans cash stipends instead of free benefits such as public transportation and medicine. Protesters charge that the payments don't match the benefits they are meant to replace.
Bowing to the rising discontent, a growing number of regional officials have given orders to temporarily restore some benefits.
In the Moscow region, for example, a spokesman for Gov. Boris Gromov said on Saturday that free public transport would be restored for all retirees.
In downtown St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, the protesters blocked major avenues for most of the day. The president was in the city but did not appear in public.
Tamara Larionovna, 66, said a monthly compensation of $13 wasn't enough to pay for public transport costs, let alone medicine. "It's a robbery of retirees," she said.
The average monthly pension in Russia is about $80, but people of retirement age remember Soviet days when rents, medical care and utilities were free and food and many other basics were heavily subsidized by the state.
Many observers said protests were likely to grow when people start receiving heating and other utility bills for January. They will increase significantly after the Jan. 1 end of government subsidies.
In Moscow and its suburbs, hundreds of retirees have repeatedly blocked highways, paralyzing traffic for hours. Dozens of police were deployed Saturday along a highway to Moscow's international airport to prevent the 1,000 who gathered to block the road as they had days ago.
Lawmakers in the State Duma, the parliament's lower house, sought to ease tensions last week by promising to consider raising pensions.
Cabinet officials have described the Kremlin-sponsored social reform as a long-overdue effort to streamline and modernize the economy, but it has badly dented Putin's popularity.