Russia's pensioner protests threaten Putin government

The Russian President Vladimir Putin is under mounting pressure to sack his government after the country's pensioners unexpectedly capitalised on the biggest outpouring of popular malcontent in his five years in power. Written off as relics of a bygone era, thousands of elderly people took to the streets in Russia's cities yesterday for the eighth day in a row to protest against the abolition of Soviet-era benefits.

The Russian President Vladimir Putin is under mounting pressure to sack his government after the country's pensioners unexpectedly capitalised on the biggest outpouring of popular malcontent in his five years in power. Written off as relics of a bygone era, thousands of elderly people took to the streets in Russia's cities yesterday for the eighth day in a row to protest against the abolition of Soviet-era benefits.

Their protests have become known in the Russian media as the "chintz revolution" and are driven by the level of compensation payments for the axed benefits, as low as 200 roubles (£4) a month, if and where they exist and have been paid.

The nationwide demonstrations, the most serious to trouble Mr Putin's presidency yet, forced him to condemn his ministers and regional governors in unusually strong terms on national television yesterday for "not properly thinking through" the reform.

"Both the government and regional governments did not fully carry out the task we spoke about: that is to ensure that in taking this decision we do not make things worse for the people most in need of the state's help," intoned a sombre-looking Mr Putin.

He said the government and political parties would have to be ready for "criticism", said to be a sure sign that heads will roll. Senior members of his own United Russia party said the government should resign next month if the situation did not "get back to normal" and a trio of political parties led by the Communists said they would try to call a vote of no confidence.

The social affairs ministry jumpily announced it would rush through an increase in the basic pension and introduce a special discount travel card, and some regions said they would abandon the reforms and go back to the old system.

The source of the pensioners' anger, the new law on the so-called "monetisation" of social benefits, became effective on 1 January. It was supposed to sweep away an archaic system that had become a terrible burden on the Russian economy.

But although the reasons for reform may have made sound economic sense, the way in which the law was drafted and implemented did not and many people who had enjoyed free public transport and medicine and heavily subsidised accommodation suddenly realised the good old days had come to an abrupt end.

The changes affect 34 million Russians (just over one quarter of the population) including veterans of the Second World War, invalids, policemen and servicemen. They are the people who lost the most when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and are ironically the ones who looked to Mr Putin to bring back the stability of the past.

The protesters' placards told the story. "Putin is worse than Hitler!" said one, "The elderly have had everything taken from them, even free travel!" said another. A third claimed "Putin, Gref [Trade Minister], Kudrin [Finance Minister] and Zurabov [Social Security Minister] and Co are murderers of the elderly and children."

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