- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin faced the biggest protests of his years in power yesterday as thousands of pensioners and war veterans staged demonstrations across Russia.

The old and poor, furious at a government decision to remove benefits such as free transportation and subsidized medicine, braved freezing weather and squads of police to block main roads and demand the president’s resignation.

The protests — apparently uncoordinated — began a week ago when hundreds of pensioners blocked the road from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The protests have since spread, drawing thousands more people each day.

Hundreds of police were deployed in St. Petersburg to hold back pensioners after they shut down its main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospect, on Saturday and Sunday.

Prevented from stopping the traffic, the pensioners stood on the pavement shouting “Down with Putin” and “Shame” and beating saucepans with spoons. A banner read: “Hitler stole our childhood and Putin is stealing our old age.”

One protester in St Petersburg erected small orange tents, a symbol of the “Orange Revolution” that swept the old guard from power in neighboring Ukraine last month.

Lyudmila Ivanova, 67, said: “They robbed us and treat us like dirt. We are against this government, and we want decent retirement conditions.”

Minor protests greeted the passing of the bill to cut benefits last year, but the current unrest appears to have taken officials by surprise.

In the past five years, Mr. Putin has succeeded in neutralizing the electronic media, forcing the political opposition to the margins and gathering almost all the levers of state power into his hands.

But it seems that the Kremlin was ill-prepared to deal with widespread discontent among pensioners and veterans, a constituency so poorly off it has little to lose. The average pension is less than $112 a month and many pensioners survived only because they were allowed free public transportation and discounts on medicines and utility bills.

These allowances were summarily replaced by cash benefits worth as little as $7.50 a month on Jan. 1. In many regions, local authorities have been told to foot the bill, but say they don’t have the resources.

The Kremlin initially sought to redirect the ire of the pensioners against the regional chiefs, but by the weekend, an apparently startled government was backpedaling.

It is now promising to raise pensions by 15 percent instead of the promised 5 percent and has offered a moratorium on payment for public transportation in many regions.

But the concessions have done little to calm tempers. Patriarch Aleksei II, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, who can usually be relied on by the authorities to be supportive, said: “The reforms must not deprive people of using public transport and communications, to keep their homes, to have access to medical help and medication. If they do, millions of our compatriots, who all their lives toiled for the sake of the motherland and who need protection, will be doomed to tragedy.”

Mr. Putin’s popularity is in steep decline with his trust rating having fallen from 58 percent a year ago to 39 percent now.

Mr. Putin finally broke his silence over the growing crisis last night, defending the measures but conceding that they had been poorly implemented. He said: “The government and the regions have not fully fulfilled the duty we spoke about. When we are taking a decision, we must not worsen the life of those who need the state’s help.”

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