Feb 7, 2005
During the third week of January, thousands of retirees and war veterans demonstrated in a number of cities across Russia. The largest gathering was in Moscow, with some 10,000 participants. The slogans for these demonstrations were "Putin: worse than Hitler" and "No to the genocide". They were denouncing a series of cutbacks that became effective on January 1, 2005.
These new cutbacks by Putin's government effectively eliminated a system of benefits that the elderly and the veterans have had from the time of the Soviet Union. The aged, the wounded, the veterans and others were partially compensated in the past with virtually free medical care and medicines, free public transportation, reduced rates at sanatoriums or thermal treatment centers and at times reductions in basic phone charges and apartment rents.
Now the ticket controllers of the public transportation systems have been ordered to chase off all the elderly who formerly were accepted for free. On at least one occasion in a town called Tver in the north of Moscow, confrontations and fights broke out as other passengers intervened to stop a controller who started to verbally harass a retiree.
Some of these austerity measures also affect government employees, raising their transportation and lodging costs. Within the army, even a high-ranking general spoke out publicly about the unpopularity of these measures within the military: "Do we really want soldiers taking to the streets (in protest)?"
To attempt to counter-balance the impact of these austerity measures, the federal and regional governments announced new compensation payments for millions of people, supposedly favoring those facing the worst consequences. But the amounts announced are very unequal and in all cases, the sums fall very short of the real needs of the population.
On January 17, in an attempt to diffuse the anger focused on him by the protestors, Putin accused other federal and regional authorities of having failed to adequately explain the reforms to the population. He also proposed to double the sum proposed as compensation for the loss of free transportation and to move the payment date up from the beginning of April to the beginning of March. But that doesn't cover the other losses, most notably the free medicine and virtually free health care system that has been terminated.
The press has cited some examples, like that of a retiree under treatment for cancer, who now needs 6,000 roubles (about 225 dollars) for medicines. But under the new system, he will receive only 200 to 550 roubles (8 to 20 dollars). That is to say, this person is condemned to die. Or as another retire was quoted, "They have added an increase in payments of 200 roubles (8 dollars) to my retirement payment of 1600 roubles (60 dollars), but nothing to cover my diabetes treatments which cost me 700 roubles (25 dollars) a month."
Different opposition parties have come out in support of the retirees. The Communist Party speaks of raising a motion in the parliament (where it has 48 seats) to censor the government of Putin. The Left Nationalist Party (with 39 seats) has called for "the entire government to step down without conditions." But even if such motions to censor are raised in the parliament, they will be out-voted by the majority of representatives who support the attacks that Putin is carrying out against the population.
By taking to the streets in large numbers to denounce these reforms – which will oblige people to choose between food, medicine and transportation – the retirees have taken the only path that can force the authorities to listen and eventually to end these attacks.