Russian pensioners take to the streets in protest at benefit cut

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Thousands of Russian pensioners staged protests across the country yesterday against the abolition of generous Soviet-era social benefits.

Thousands of Russian pensioners staged protests across the country yesterday against the abolition of generous Soviet-era social benefits.

Though the demonstrations were peaceful, analysts said the protests were the most serious in Russia since 1998, when disgruntled coal miners blocked railway tracks in protest at unpaid wages.

Yesterday was the third consecutive day of demonstrations, which have stretched from Russia's Far East to Moscow itself and at times brought vital transport arteries to a standstill.

On Monday, a crowd of elderly people blocked the highway from Moscow's city centre to one of its main international airports. Yesterday, they took their protest to the towns of Samara, Izhevsk, Penza, Kursk and Podol'sk.

The source of the pensioners' anger is a law that came into force on 1 January, 14 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The legislation replaced the existing Communist-style social benefits with monthly cash payments.

Many people who previously enjoyed free public transport and medicine and heavily subsidised accommodation have just realised that the good old days have come to an end.

The new legislation, which is designed to save the government billions of roubles and thus enable further social and financial reform, affects 34 million Russians (just over one quarter of the population).

Though some pensioners will be better off, many will not. The "lucky ones" - about 14 million war veterans, invalids and "heroes" of the Soviet Union and Russia - have had their benefits replaced with cash payments of between 350 roubles (£6.60) and 3,050 roubles a month, which is financed by the federal government. These pensioners will also retain their right to subsidised housing and get a 450 rouble "social" allowance every month.

However, some 20 million others, mostly ordinary pensioners, have been less lucky and have watched in horror as their decades-old perks have been swept away at a stroke.

Their payments are paid out by regional authorities, who have been told to start offering compensation at just 200 roubles a month. To add insult to injury, many pensioners say they have not yet received any compensation this year.

Russian television has broadcast images of crowds of angry elderly women squaring off against policemen. It is the kind of negative PR the Kremlin could do without.

Many brandished banners criticising Vladimir Putin, the President, and demanding the full restoration of their social benefits, particularly those relating to free public transport and medicine. "We don't know where laws like this come from and who thinks them up," a female pensioner in Samara told a television reporter.

"Somebody just doesn't have enough money to buy a house in the Canary Islands so they decided to buy it at the expense of pensioners and stuff money into their pockets. They have holes in their pockets, they never have enough."

Another woman agreed. She said: "This compensation does not compensate for anything. The rent is being increased, the use of public transport has been cancelled and what can you buy for 300 roubles?"

But the government is not backing down. It blames the regional authorities for poor implementation and has accused the Communist Party of being behind the protests.

The government insists that the change is a necessary, "well-balanced and fair" measure whose short-lived discomfort will ultimately do wonders for the Russian economy and sweep away an anachronistic hang-over from the USSR. It has also vowed to investigate cases where pensioners have been paid too little or too late.

The Russian parliament, which is controlled by Mr Putin's United Russia Party, failed to approve a motion by the Communists and the Motherland Party to review the legislation yesterday.

In a poll carried out by the Ekho Moskvy radio station, 97 per cent of people blamed Mr Putin for the crisis.

A decision taken by Mr Putin earlier in the week to overturn a ban on drinking beer in the street proved more popular, but at the moment Russian pensioners are busy drowning their sorrows.