‘Managed’ No More

Russians take to the streets to protest the privatization of their social welfare system.

Fred Weir

Russian Communists protest against the bill on the replacement of social benefits with cash compensation.

Moscow — While Amer­i­cans debate the poten­tial impact of Social Secu­ri­ty pri­va­ti­za­tion, Rus­sians are already react­ing to a sweep­ing over­haul of their sys­tem. The protest wave began in ear­ly Jan­u­ary, when thou­sands of angry pen­sion­ers in sev­er­al cities block­ad­ed roads, occu­pied gov­ern­ment build­ings and scuf­fled with police over can­cel­la­tion of their tra­di­tion­al wel­fare ben­e­fits. By late Feb­ru­ary, stu­dents, trade union­ists and aca­d­e­mics were ral­ly­ing over a wider range of issues, and the five-year peri­od of social calm, often cred­it­ed to Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s strat­e­gy of man­aged democ­ra­cy,” was in shambles.

Putin is not — at least not yet — in seri­ous trou­ble. But many of his government’s dra­con­ian plans to pri­va­tize Russia’s social sphere, includ­ing hous­ing, edu­ca­tion, health care and pub­lic trans­port, have been thrown into dis­ar­ray. They may call it adjust­ment,’ or going over to mar­ket mech­a­nisms, but this is about slash­ing gov­ern­ment expen­di­tures and remov­ing the life-sup­port sys­tems for mil­lions of peo­ple,” says Mikhail Delya­gin, pres­i­dent of the Insti­tute of Glob­al­iza­tion Stud­ies in Moscow. Peo­ple are only begin­ning to real­ize how deeply affect­ed they will be by these changes. We can expect much big­ger protests in the months to come.”

The trig­ger was a new law that kicked in Jan­u­ary 1, replac­ing a mul­ti­tude of in-kind ben­e­fits enjoyed by Russia’s 30 mil­lion pen­sion­ers with a sin­gle cash pay­ment. The can­celed ser­vices includ­ed the right to ride free on pub­lic trans­port, dis­count med­i­cines, access to no-cost health clin­ics, hous­ing sub­si­dies and a range of oth­er priv­i­leges. Retirees, who took to the streets in rolling protests that were still going on in late Feb­ru­ary, com­plained that the com­pen­sa­tion added to their pen­sions bare­ly made up a frac­tion of what they’d lost.

The reform also impact­ed mil­lions of oth­ers, notably dis­abled peo­ple who lost access to free wheel­chairs, pros­thet­ics and ther­a­py, guar­an­teed since Sovi­et times.

Russ­ian media report­ed on a spate of assaults by elder­ly pas­sen­gers upon bus con­duc­tors who demand­ed fares, high­light­ing the rage felt by some at los­ing the right to ride for free. Many old­er peo­ple will feel iso­lat­ed now, like they can’t afford to trav­el to vis­it fam­i­ly and friends like they used to,” says Valentin Makarov, an 84-year-old World War II veteran.

Makarov did the math and joined hun­dreds of oth­ers to block­ade the main road into Moscow from the sub­urb of Khim­ki in Jan­u­ary. He says his month­ly pen­sion of 2,300 rubles (about $80 U.S.) was increased by 450 rubles ($15 U.S.). But his apart­ment main­te­nance charges alone jumped by 35 per cent, or 300 rubles ($10 US), and he must now pay 600 rubles twice a month for med­i­cine he needs. If we have to pay to use pub­lic trans­port, that will be anoth­er 600 rubles a month at least,” he says. There is no way to make ends meet, and the few things we could rely on to be free have been tak­en away.”

Accord­ing to a cal­cu­la­tion made by Com­mu­nist law­mak­ers, the full val­ue of promised state ben­e­fits to some 100 mil­lion needy Rus­sians totaled one and a half tril­lion rubles, or about $50 bil­lion U.S. But last year only 550 bil­lion rubles (about $18 bil­lion U.S.) was actu­al­ly paid out to fund the sys­tem. The bud­get for 2005 pro­vides only 160 bil­lion rubles (about $5 bil­lion), or more than a three­fold reduc­tion,” says Vladimir Kashin, a lead­ing Com­mu­nist deputy of the Duma, Russia’s par­lia­ment. We are look­ing at a full-scale attack on the needs of the major­i­ty of people.”

Russ­ian author­i­ties were quick to blame oppo­si­tion agi­ta­tors for the unrest. But, iron­i­cal­ly, even the pow­er­ful Com­mu­nist Par­ty — whose mem­ber­ship is main­ly pen­sion­ers — appears to have been blind­sided by January’s ini­tial wave of protest. The Com­mu­nists and oth­er oppo­si­tion groups, such as the lib­er­al Yabloko par­ty, are now involved and plan­ning coor­di­nat­ed nation­wide actions.

The Krem­lin has react­ed by crit­i­ciz­ing the gov­ern­ment for its clum­sy” imple­men­ta­tion of the reforms, increas­ing cash pay­ments and tem­porar­i­ly restor­ing some ben­e­fits. It’s offered spe­cial com­pen­sa­tion boosts for war vet­er­ans, whom Putin hopes will join him on Red Square for a gala cel­e­bra­tion of the 60th anniver­sary of the USSR’s vic­to­ry over Nazi Ger­many on May 9. The vets have threat­ened a boy­cott, which could be polit­i­cal­ly devastating.

And dis­con­tent appears to be spread­ing. Stu­dents have held their own ral­lies over a pro­posed law can­cel­ing all mil­i­tary defer­ments that the Krem­lin hoped might stave off the Russ­ian army’s col­lapse. After the protests, the defense min­is­ter post­poned the mea­sures until lat­er this year. There’s a lot of fer­ment among stu­dents now, and not just over the threat of being dragged into the army,” says Oleg Orlov, an orga­niz­er for the Stu­dents Defense League, one of sev­er­al rad­i­cal move­ments said to be pro­lif­er­at­ing on Russ­ian cam­pus­es. It’s get­ting impos­si­ble to obtain the free edu­ca­tion guar­an­teed in the Russ­ian con­sti­tu­tion. Every­thing is being com­mer­cial­ized, with the result that poor stu­dents are being forced out. We could see stu­dents pour into the streets this spring, just like they did in Ukraine.”

Schol­ars have demon­strat­ed over mea­ger state sup­port for sci­ence, pro­fes­sion­al dri­vers ral­lied over the ris­ing cost of gaso­line, and a quar­ter mil­lion Rus­sians took part in a Com­mu­nist Party/​trade union-spon­sored day of protest” on Feb­ru­ary 12 to demand the reforms be rolled back. A Jan­u­ary sur­vey con­duct­ed by the Defense Min­istry found that 80 per­cent of mil­i­tary per­son­nel are dis­sat­is­fied” over the reforms, which can­celed their free rides on pub­lic trans­port and cur­tailed their access to food rations and oth­er non-cash benefits.

The Krem­lin says it’s still on track to intro­duce a sweep­ing hous­ing reform at the begin­ning of next year — poten­tial­ly far more explo­sive — that will pri­va­tize most munic­i­pal ser­vices and require ten­ants to pay mar­ket prices for util­i­ties and main­te­nance of their flats. Last year, the pro-Krem­lin major­i­ty in the Duma passed Russia’s first-ever evic­tion law, so peo­ple can now be dis­pos­sessed for chron­ic non-pay­ment of heat, elec­tric­i­ty or oth­er bills.

Peo­ple are expect­ing the worst,” says Valery Fyo­dor­ov, direc­tor of the state-run VTsIOM pub­lic opin­ion agency. The reforms have bare­ly begun, but all our polls show that peo­ple are already deeply sus­pi­cious. They don’t expect any­thing good from gov­ern­ment, and this is a very big problem.”

Fred Weir is a Moscow cor­re­spon­dent for In These Times and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent, Cana­di­an Press and the South Chi­na Morn­ing Post. He is the co-author of Rev­o­lu­tion from Above: The Demise of the Sovi­et System.
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