President Vladimir Putin, seeking to assuage rising public anger, promised a moderate increase in pensions and blamed federal and local officials Monday for failing to properly implement Kremlin reforms that cut off benefits to millions of Russians.
Putin’s first public comments since the unpopular change took effect came hours after lines of police blocked hundreds of protesters from retaking a major intersection in central St. Petersburg that thousands of pensioners had occupied over the weekend, bringing traffic to a halt. Demonstrators blocked major avenues and key highways in other cities.
“The Cabinet and the regions have failed to fully implement the task we had discussed: in making such decisions, not to worsen the position of those who need the state’s help,” a somber-looking Putin told Cabinet members in a partly televised session.
A law that gives retirees, the disabled, war veterans and others cash stipends instead of benefits such as free medicine and public transportation took effect Jan. 1, sparking the largest uproar in Putin’s five years in power.
Protest spans the nation
Large protests have spread to numerous cities across Russia’s 11 time zones, including Putin’s hometown, St. Petersburg. Officials said the reform affected about 40 million of Russia’s 144 million people.
Protesters say new monthly payments of about $10 are worth much less than the benefits, forcing them to have to choose among food, transportation and medicine.
The Kremlin has described the social reform as a long-overdue effort to streamline and modernize the economy, but many commentators predict now that Putin may respond to the crisis by firing government ministers.
Putin defended the reform, saying that its general concept was right and that the state could not afford to maintain the unwieldy and inefficient social support system.
Without naming his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Putin blamed Yeltsin’s government for increasing the number of people eligible for social benefits in the 1990s while lacking the funds to deliver. Wages and pensions were months and even years overdue, he said.
“The situation is different now,” Putin said.
Average pension rise doubled
Putin supported decisions by some local officials to issue subsidized travel passes and also instructed the government to increase the average monthly pension by at least $7.14 instead of the planned $3.57 — and to do it March 1 instead of April 1. Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov said pensions may be increased by $8.57.
Protesters across Russia have demanded more, saying an average monthly pension, which is about $80, can’t cover the rising living costs.
From Khabarovsk in the Far East to Penza and Vologda in western Russia, thousands of retirees again took to the streets Monday. In St. Petersburg, the mostly elderly demonstrators kept from blocking the intersection remained on the sidewalks, shouting “Shame!” and “Down with Putin!” and beating spoons against saucepans.
Many elderly people, already feeling disenfranchised, considered the change a final insult after they were left struggling to survive on meager pensions in inflationary and capitalist Russia when the state welfare system collapsed with the Soviet Union in 1991.
“They robbed us, and they treat us like dirt,” said a protester, Lyudmila Ivanova, 67. “We are against this government, and we want decent retirement conditions.”
The wave of protests has forced concessions from authorities in many regions. Officials in St. Petersburg promised subsidized travel passes, and the Moscow region pledged to fully restore free rides on mass transit for all retirees after they repeatedly blocked key highways.
The anger has raised the pressure on Putin, who has seen little public protest in his tenure.
Observers have said the protests would likely intensify when people start receiving January utility bills, which will increase significantly without government subsidies.
Officials were busy shifting blame after Putin’s remarks, with top Cabinet members accusing regional authorities of failing to implement the reform properly and several parliament factions saying they would prepare a motion of no-confidence in the Cabinet.
Lyubov Sliska, a deputy parliament speaker who is connected to the Kremlin, said Monday that a “voluntary resignation of some Cabinet members responsible for this reform could significantly ease social tension,” the ITAR-Tass news agency reported. Sliska has said before that the entire Cabinet could be ousted.