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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 January, 2005, 16:29 GMT
Reform sparks anger across Russia
Scene of protest outside Moscow
Police used force to stop highway blockade outside Moscow
Hundreds of Russian pensioners have taken to the streets in fresh protests against the reform of public benefits.

They object to changes which mean that millions of Russians who used to travel free on public transport must now pay.

It is one of a series of Soviet-era state benefits which are being replaced by cash compensation.

The reform came into force on New Year's Day, but the protests began when Russians returned to work after a 10-day New Year holiday.

Pensioners, military servicemen and policemen found that they were no longer entitled to free public transport, free medicines and reduced payments for electricity and gas, as well as other benefits they had enjoyed for decades.

The BBC's Steve Rosenberg in Moscow reports that this immediately caused long queues at train stations.

Threats of prosecution

On Monday, several hundred protesters stopped traffic on the key highway connecting Moscow with its international airport. Police were called in to disperse the crowd and 10 protesters are facing fines.

But in the western city of Kaliningrad, it was policemen who refused to pay for bus tickets and were reportedly arresting conductors at gunpoint.

In Samara on the Volga river, pensioners led by Communist Party activists blocked a central avenue, but dispersed after talks with the authorities.

Protests also took place in other cities across Russia and continued on Tuesday, when pensioners attempted to break into the mayor's office in the town of Tolyatti, the home of the Lada carworks.

The authorities say people will be better off once non-monetary benefits have been replaced with cash allowances. They dismiss the protests as an act of provocation.

Russian State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov said: "If it was a deliberate action that had nothing to do with the real situation, its organisers should be prosecuted".


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