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Last Updated: Friday, 6 August, 2004, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
Welfare bill stirs Russian anger

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC Moscow correspondent

The Russian Duma has given final approval to a plan to end the Soviet-era system of state benefits for the elderly and disabled.

It is no surprise from a parliament dominated by loyal supporters of the Kremlin.

But this reform has been one of the most hotly debated issues here since President Vladimir Putin came to power.

Clashes between police and communist protesters
Protesters want the law to be overturned
If you watch Russian state television, you would think there was no controversy at all.

In a typical bulletin this week, Channel One interviewed a war veteran insisting the new system would leave him better off.

And both state channels repeatedly broadcast crowds of pensioners, demonstrating in favour of the reform.

But not everyone is so impressed.

The reform replaces a series of benefits-in-kind with cash compensation. That means no more automatic free transport, subsidised medicine - or discounts on utilities costs for millions of war veterans, pensioners and invalids.

Communist protest

Many are dreading the change. They do not believe the cash will stretch nearly so far.

''Now, with my benefits, I can take the trolley bus for free to go shopping," pensioner Mikhail explained.

"I can go to one market, then another - even a third one - and hunt for the cheapest food of all. If our benefits go, I'll have to pay for my tickets. That would cost 40 roubles (75p) in a day, and they're only going to pay us 400 (7.50) in compensation."

Our benefits have been paid for by the blood of our fathers - by our own hard labour. Keep your paws off them, or face the curse of the nation
Lydia Malokeeva
As deputies debated the bill in its key second reading on Tuesday, a small group of communists staged an angry protest close to Red Square.

Waving banners, they denounced the proposal as shameful. It was one of a wave of recent demonstrations against the law, held across the country.

Standing side by side with the pensioners, 10 young communists declared they were calling a hunger strike. They are demanding the law is overturned.

"This reform is a strike against the weakest people in our country," one boy said. "It affects our veterans, our old people and our invalids. We are going to keep up our fast for as long as we can."

The protests are unlikely to change any minds in government, where officials insist cash payments will be fairer. They argue that a free bus pass is no use in a village with no buses - and say money will give freedom of choice.

Letter

The new system will also increase transparency, and crack-down on those who use fake ID to abuse the system.

But many genuine claimants see losing their automatic benefits as an insult. Millions of Russians are entitled to state help in recognition of their role fighting or working for their country. They see that as a mark of respect.

Protester
Some pensioners say they will suffer serious financial implications
Lydia Malokeeva travelled to Moscow all the way from Murmansk in the far north to deliver her written protest to parliament.

''Our benefits have been paid for by the blood of our fathers - by our own hard labour," her letter read.

"Keep your paws off them, or face the curse of the nation. You still have time to change your mind - use it! Signed - Lidiya Malokeeva, Murmansk, a victim of your repressions."

Analyst Stanislav Belkovksy believes opposition to the reform is as much emotional as economic - a hangover from Soviet times.

''For this nation, the role of the state as a father and mother is of paramount importance," he explains.

"It's much more important than any money, and especially in the sort of amounts suggested by the new law."

Invalids concerned

At her flat across town, Iskra Myachnina was certainly emotional on the subject of the reform. But she insists there are serious financial implications too.

She already struggles on a pension worth around $50 (27).

''I live better than most, but even so - when I go to a shop, it's like going to a museum, just to look at things,'' Iskra laughs. "The prices are beyond my means."

Iskra has ''invalid status'' and gets a 50% discount on her utility bills. She is also entitled to heavy subsidies on the medicine she needs each month.

She is convinced she will get less in cash payments, and certain the money will be eaten into by inflation.

And like many people here, Iskra is dismissive of government promises that no one will lose out.

"Whatever they say, they will cheat us - we are accustomed to that," she says. "I don't know how I will survive. I will die sooner!"

Frustration

This week, nationalist politician Sergei Glaziev announced plans to propose a referendum on the reform. Mr Glaziev believes removing the social safety net in Russia is a crime against the people.

"I think President Putin will lose at least half of his electorate over this," Sergei Glaziev insisted.

"People are astonished. I have received thousands of letters. We see a lot of frustration. The myths around Mr Putin are going out."

This bill is just one of a series of social reforms that Vladimir Putin has pledged to promote in his second term, taking advantage of Russia's current economic stability.

Parliament is bound to approve them. What is less clear is how far Mr Putin's popularity rating will suffer as a result.




SEE ALSO:
Russians stage benefits protest
02 Aug 04  |  Europe
Russia workers demand wage rises
10 Jun 04  |  Europe
Putin pledges sweeping tax reform
19 Mar 04  |  Business
Can Putin keep Russia bubbling?
15 Mar 04  |  Business
Russia's economy picks up speed
03 Feb 04  |  Business
Russia may vet post-Soviet rich
27 Aug 04  |  Europe


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