New York Times
February 12, 2005
MOSCOW, Feb. 11 - A month ago a small crowd of elderly men and women briefly blocked the highway to Moscow's main international airport to protest changes in pension benefits. It seemed insignificant then, but in retrospect it seems to have been the first stirrings of something long considered dead, or at least dormant, in Russia: the public protest.
In Beslan, relatives of those killed in the siege of Middle School No. 1 last September blocked the main highway across the North Caucasus for three days in late January to protest the pace of the government's official investigation into the terrorist attack. On the island of Sakhalin in the Far East, ecologists joined local villagers in blocking roads leading to new oil and gas projects to protest their effect on the environment and local tribal cultures.
In the last week alone, people representing liberal parties assembled near the Kremlin in Moscow to denounce the end of direct elections for governor and in St. Petersburg to protest the exclusion of political opponents from the city's official television station. On Thursday, transportation workers took to the streets in those cities, and a dozen others, to rail against the rising cost of gasoline, among other issues.
"There is calm before the storm, and it is the beginning of the storm," said Anatoly Zykov, 55, a bus driver from the Moscow region who joined some 200 others outside the government headquarters known as the White House. "God forbid there should be bloodshed, but everyone is sick and tired."
An axiom here holds that Russians are politically passive, but the protests unfolding in cities across 11 time zones is challenging that, while raising questions about public support for the country's course under President Vladimir V. Putin.
The largest of the demonstrations have included no more than a few thousand protesters. But taken together, they are the largest by far of Mr. Putin's presidency and appear to signal a broadly felt, if ill-defined, discontent.
The public anger has dented Mr. Putin's ratings and rattled his government ministers, who responded slowly and confusedly to the first wave of protests over pensions before retreating in part on changes that the Kremlin had pushed through a pliant Parliament last summer.
Mr. Putin's appointees have attributed the demonstrations to a disgruntled few, incited by agitators, but the protests show little sign of dissipating. A coalition of political, social, environmental and labor organizations has called new rallies across the country for Saturday, including two in Moscow.
"In the first four years of Putin's regime, people had hope," said Roman A. Dobrokhotov, 21, a political science student at Moscow State University and a leader of a new group called Walking Without Putin. "Nowadays, people understand that under authoritarian rule, development is impossible. This government, this system, is not suitable for them."
He called the unrest "the beginning of the liberal revolution," one modeled on Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" late last year, when thousands poured into the streets to protest the former government's attempt to rig the election of President Leonid D. Kuchma's successor.
For now, that seems unlikely in Russia, where Mr. Putin has near absolute control over the political system. But the protests have emboldened and united his political opponents, from Communists to liberals who only a few months ago appeared demoralized and increasingly marginalized. Opposition leaders claim that in the last month 500,000 people have taken to the streets.
"We should expect a new and even bigger wave of protests this spring," said Oleg V. Shein, a member of Parliament representing the nationalist party Motherland. He predicted that coming government changes in housing and health care would bring more to the streets. "People no longer expect any help from the central authorities," he said. "And these people are growing. Five hundred thousand is not that big a number for a country like ours, but it is a start."
The immediate spark for this outpouring of protest was a decision to replace social benefits like free transport and subsidized telephone, electrical and housing payments with monthly cash payments starting at $7. Mr. Putin's ministers argued the change was needed to rationalize an unwieldy system that weighed down the federal budget and swamped transit and public utilities with nonpaying customers, cutting money available to invest in upgrading decaying infrastructure.
More than 30 million Russians - including pensioners, veterans and invalids - received the benefits, however. Facing the prospect of paying for them with cash supplements that they derided as meager, they took to the streets.
The first protests erupted spontaneously in a few cities after the prolonged New Year's holiday break, but soon leaders of the Communist and Motherland parties helped organize more. They also forced a vote of no-confidence in Mr. Putin's government, which is led by Prime Minister Mikhail Y. Fradkov. The vote, on Wednesday, failed, but many pro-Putin lawmakers signaled their fear of a potential voter backlash by not voting. From the start, the benefits protest became a catalyst for other grievances, tapping into a growing discontent with Mr. Putin's policies, not only in the social sphere. In St. Petersburg, students joined in after the defense minister, Sergei B. Ivanov, suggested that the government was considering ending the draft deferment for those in college.
After first ignoring the protests, Mr. Putin criticized his appointees, as well as regional officials, who faced the brunt of the protests and the costs of trying to supplement the reduced benefits, which many did. In some cities, those accused of organizing the protests were arrested, though they were later released.
Mr. Putin's government and the majority party in Parliament, United Russia, tried to stem the discontent by raising spending by $4 billion to ease the benefits blow. On Wednesday, the Parliament also voted to raise the minimum state pension by more than a third to nearly $32 a month. Military and security service members - who also lost their free transport - received raises as well. And Mr. Ivanov dropped his proposal to end college deferments for the draft. The concessions appeared to ease the protests somewhat, but they also created new ones, like those in Beslan and in Sakhalin, where people vented their own grievances. In Moscow on Thursday, 150 civilian workers gathered outside the Defense Ministry to demand the same level of raises given to those in uniform.
The transit workers took to the streets outside the White House here the same day. Their grievances included not only gasoline prices, but paltry wages, import restrictions that force airlines to use old Russian airliners rather than buy new ones from the West, and the economic disparities that have created fortunes for a handful of politically connected tycoons while the country's majority remains poor.
"I hope there will be a result," said Valery Popov, a road worker who continues working at 67 because he cannot afford to live in Moscow on a pension. "When all the people start protesting, there will be a result. If we all stay at home, there will be none."