by Gerry Foley – February, 2005
Large and militant demonstrations by pensioners and their supporters over the weekend of Jan. 15-16 forced Russia’s authoritarian ruler, Vladimir Putin, to
retreat from his attempt to eliminate free services, primarily free transportation, for the country’s elderly and public workers.
The protests were the largest since the post-Stalinist strongman took over in 1999 and his first political defeat among the Russian population. (The Russian
Federation includes many small nationalities that have differing relationships with the Moscow government.)
They are the first that forced Putin to give ground. Putin tried to pacify the protests by increasing the cash payments that were supposed to replace the
removed benefits, restoring some benefits, and admitting that the authorities had given the victims reason to complain.
The Jan. 21 Christian Science Monitor quoted a protester: “’[This reform] was the last straw,’ says Lyukshina, who says she’s barely able to survive on her war veteran’s pension. ‘We built this country, we fought for it, and they treat us like this. We are in a fighting mood now. I’m ready to go out and block the
roads every day until they listen to us.’”
The Monitor’s Russian correspondent, Fred Weir, went on to write: “Kremlin efforts to defuse the situation, by putting more money on the table and restoring some benefits, appear to have had little effect.
“Experts worry that the mood of discontent could soon spread to other social groups. ‘We can expect a real wave of demonstrations in February,’ as the impact of the reforms sinks in, says Mikhail Delyagin, director of the left-leaning Institute of Globalization Studies in Moscow. ‘This is not just about money. People who are not used to being offended by their government,
such as pensioners and the Army, are feeling insulted by the cancellation of their benefits.’”
The political stakes in this struggle are high for the rulers who proclaim that they are restoring capitalism. For them there is a principle at
stake—everything has to have a price.
Weir noted: “One of the main authors of the welfare law, United Russia [Putin’s] party deputy Vitaly Shuba, insists there will be no backtracking on
reform. ‘Ideologically, this law is right,’ he says. ‘There might be some corrections in the wording of the law, but the main thrust of it will remain.’”
However, in the attempt to move further to a purely money economy, the Putin government is now attacking the remains of the old social economy on which many Russians depend to survive.
The British Economist wrote Jan. 20: “The average monthly pension is only a little over 2000 roubles ($70). For many older Russians, the benefits-in-kind
that survived, until this year, from the Soviet period, were an essential protection against outright penury. Many also regard free transport and subsidized utilities and medicines as rightful recognition of past services to the state. After the hyperinflation of the 1990s, they also tend to prefer tangible
privileges to cash.”
If the experts fear that the pensioners’ protest will spread to other sectors of the population, it probably means that such remaining benefits of the old system have enabled these sectors to survive also. Thus, the question arises whether the restorers of capitalism have run up against a major limitation to their project of creating a normal capitalist economy.