Russian vets battle for benefits

Draft law, passed by the State Duma last week, would replace free services with cash for 40 million Russians.

Valentin Zmirlov commanded a Red Army tank-busting regiment through four harrowing years of World War II. He says he was happy to retire with the comprehensive, yet modest, benefits granted to a Soviet war veteran.

But today, Mr. Zmirlov is leading his downtown Moscow veterans' association into a different sort of battle. Russia's powerful war vets are at the head of a growing grass-roots challenge to President Vladimir Putin's plans to overhaul the country's Soviet-era pension and welfare systems.

"We were deceived," says the gray-haired retired general, who stands ramrod-straight, proudly displaying his war medals.

"Just a few months ago, we reelected the parliament and the president, and nobody said a word about abolishing our benefits. All the veterans I know are very angry about this."

A draft law, passed in first reading by the pro-Kremlin majority in the State Duma last Friday, would replace a bewildering array of benefits with simple cash payments. These services and subsidies are a key source of aid to some 40 million mostly elderly or disabled Russians.

Among the privileges to be cancelled are free public transport and telephone service, subsidized medicines and sanitarium treatments, state-provided wheelchairs and prosthetics, and a host of other Soviet-era benefits provided to millions of pensioners, veterans, disabled people, single mothers, and Arctic-dwellers.

Supporters of the law argue that the reform is a long overdue measure that will slash waste, target benefits where they are needed, and enable tax reductions.

"This reform is dictated by the logic of modernization," says Konstantin Simonov, director of the independent Center for Current Politics in Moscow. "It's another matter that the government is going about implementing in an inept way."

The Kremlin has ordered the Duma to postpone its summer recess in order to push the controversial, 600-page law through the required three readings by early August.

Reform proponents say the old system was a godsend for corrupt officials, who would charge the state for services to the needy they never delivered. Millions of rural pensioners lack any access to telephone service, public transport, or subsidized pharmacies, and thus are unable to enjoy the supposed privileges at all, they add.

"The goal of this law is to move from pure populism to actually implementing our obligations," to create a modern, market-driven economy in Russia, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin told the Duma.

Few observers anticipated the firestorm of opposition that began with demonstrations by thousands of angry pensioners at Russia's government headquarters last month. It has since escalated into threats by war veterans to abstain from next year's symbolically important celebrations of the 60th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany.

"It's as if they're trying to kill us for a second time," says Maria Rokhlina, who fought at the battles of Kiev and Stalingrad. "This law is a humiliation for us."

Underlying the wave of opposition is a widespread belief that the measures are designed to grab resources away from the elderly and the poor, and hand them to the rich and powerful.

A poll conducted by the independent ROMIR public opinion agency last month found that just 36 percent of Russians approved the welfare reform, while 59 percent disapproved.

Zmirlov says he and his wife have been able to live comfortably on his well-above-average general's pension of 8,000 rubles (about $260) monthly. But he says the government's plan to take away all his non-cash benefits and give him 1,500 rubles ($50) in exchange will inflict real pain.

"We use public transport to get around the city, and go to our dacha [country cottage] in the summer, and that alone adds up to more than they're planning to give us," he says. "The system of benefits was working, and when they take it away a lot of people will be left without vital things that they need."

Critics also doubt that promises to index the new payments to inflation are likely to be honored. "Prices on things like transport, medicines, and telephone bills are growing much faster than the rate of inflation," says Oleg Shein, head of the Independent Trade Union Federation and a Duma deputy with the left-wing Rodina party. "These measures are guaranteed to hammer the living standards of the poorest and most vulnerable groups."

The government admits it stands to save billions of dollars through the cash substitution, and by passing on some other welfare obligations to regional authorities. But it insists the new system will be more reliable and conducive to economic growth.

"The fact is that the government's theoretical welfare obligations are twice as great as the resources available to pay them," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Many of the benefits being cancelled were never actually delivered."

Zmirlov says that no economic calculus can adequately explain the rage felt by many war veterans as the Duma moves to strip away their traditional support system.

"We gave everything to this country; we suffered through war, reconstruction, and a lot more," he says. "So we take these privileges as our right, as the thanks of a grateful nation. If they take all that away from us and offer some small sum of money instead, well, we just cannot accept that on a moral level."

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