Large sections of the Russian people take to the streets protesting against the Vladimir Putin-led government's decision to do away with Soviet-era public benefits.
SHORTLY after it lost face trying to influence the outcome of the Ukranian presidential elections, the Kremlin is facing a domestic challenge with unrest spreading across Moscow, St. Petersburg and other major cities in Russia. Through January, the country witnessed a protest movement of pensioners against the government's decision to reform Soviet-era public benefits. The Kremlin decided to replace the majority of in-kind social benefits - free public transport, free medicines, reduced payments for power and gas, and so on for pensioners and military and police personnel - with cash payments. It, however, withdrew many of the measures following the protests.
The measures came into effect on January 1. Since then elderly citizens have been blocking thoroughfares and demonstrating in front of city halls and regional administrative buildings. In some other areas, protesters blocked highways, railway lines and occupied regional administrative buildings. Although pensioners have comprised the bulk of the protesters, the movement has not been restricted to them. Student groups, public sector workers and military personnel have expressed their solidarity with them.
Students' ire was raised by an increase in transport fares, an end to the deferment of the draft, and their perception of an increasing erosion of democratic freedoms under President Vladimir Putin thanks to his policy of increased centralisation. In St. Petersburg, mounting student unrest manifested itself in the formation of a group called "Marching Without Putin". The group has been congregating at the city's Lenin Square to voice its protest. However, the Russian student movement is a far cry from the ones in Ukraine and Georgia which played major roles in bringing down incumbent governments. Political observers feel that the Russian movement lacks the numbers and the serious political commitment that characterised its Ukrainian and Georgian counterparts.
Military and police personnel have so far lent silent support to the protesters. Although they have not yet come out in the open, they have informed the authorities of their disapproval of the reform measure that affects them as well. Russian media reports indicate that following the announcement of the reforms, military personnel in various garrisons filed statements with their commanding officers saying that they could not travel at their own expense for guard duty or patrol. They said that it was an additional burden on their family budgets. Simultaneously, servicemen have informed Ministers of the deterioration in their material position following the monetisation of benefits.
The swiftness of the public reaction and the widespread nature of the protests have left the government appalled. An angry Putin has criticised the Cabinet and the regional authorities for the unrest. He said: "Both federal and regional authorities have failed to enforce the legal norms properly."
Observers have warned that public anger is likely to grow in the coming months as the government goes ahead with reform of the health, education and housing sectors. They feel that the protests, if continued, could have a far-reaching impact on Russia's socio-political landscape. Perhaps, the earliest indication of what lay in store was visible in public opinion polls, which recorded a loss of public confidence in the government, especially in the Cabinet, Mayors and regional Governors. Currently, Putin's ratings have not been affected much. However, if the social unrest continues the President could lose his high level of popularity.
Another immediate effect of the protests has been the Russian public's increased awareness of its own strength. After years the government has seen strident street protests in Russia. Within weeks of the protests, the authorities gave in to most of the demands. In the regions, Governors virtually restored all the benefits enjoyed by pensioners or gave them heavy discounts. The federal government issued discount cards to pensioners and promised to raise their pensions.
THE protests have given a boost to the flagging morale of the Opposition parties. The Communist and other left-wing parties, which suffered heavy losses in the parliamentary elections, are back in the reckoning with the protests. They say that they played a major role in organising them. In a bid to return to the political mainstream, liberal parties such as Yabloko have been participating actively in the protests. Interestingly, in many places there is tacit cooperation between the Communist and liberal parties in organising the protests. A no-confidence motion moved by the Opposition parties against Prime Minister Mikhael Fradkov failed to get enough votes in the Duma (Parliament). But the very fact that such a move was made shows that Putin's grip over the Duma is loosening.
Political observers feel that Russia is entering an interesting transitional phase wherein a change of consciousness could be overtaking the country. Valery Solovey, an expert with the Gorbachev Foundation, feels that "the protests have eliminated a long-harboured public perception that nothing can drive the Russian people to the streets. More than that, those in charge of law enforcement have proved reluctant to protect the government as it was in an extremely awkward position. Pensioners, once believed to be the most law-abiding Russian citizens, are now protesting, which means the public consciousness has changed much". The reforms slated for the housing, education and health sectors are likely to hit the public harder and trigger more street protests. However, it remains to be seen whether Russia will go the way of Ukraine and Georgia. If it does, will it be liberal and pro-West like Ukraine and Georgia? Or will the change have an entirely Russian flavour, sprung from the country's communist and left-wing activist traditions?