MOSCOW — The Kremlin is backpedaling on market reforms introduced earlier this month in an effort to forestall students, police, and even soldiers from joining a growing pensioners' revolt against the cancellation of traditional benefits.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov pledged Tuesday to postpone until later this year plans to force students into the army, after young people rallied in several cities against the conscription system.
Experts say that if dissent among pensioners over President Vladimir Putin's plans to rewrite the Soviet-era social contract spreads to hitherto apolitical students or other social groups, it could spell trouble for the country's hard-won political stability and five-year streak of economic growth.
"Until recently everyone thought the Russian population was passive, apathetic, and incapable of mobilizing to defend its rights, but now we see otherwise," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
Students, like many elderly Russians, are stirring over cancellation of their public transport privileges and a draft law requiring all 18-year-old males to perform military service before being allowed to go to university.
"Our students may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in them," quips liberal leader Sergei Mitrokhin, paraphrasing a famous remark by Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky.
Even in Soviet times, students were able to defer army service, or to fulfill their obligations by taking part in military activities at their place of education. Under Russia's current law all males between the ages of 18 and 27 must perform two years of service. The country's growing deficit of draft-age males, plus widespread draft evasion, has led the generals to demand all legal deferments be cut, including those traditionally given to students.
A few dozen students who rallied near the Kremlin on Tuesday complained that, despite years of promises, the government has failed to reform the demoralized and ill-funded armed forces and now wants to solve the problems at their expense.
"I'm not against doing military service on principle, but they need to improve conditions so that young people will want to join," said Ivan Samsonov, a computer student. "And I don't see the point of going into the army before I graduate. It's wrong to force us to serve."
Human rights groups have slammed conditions for conscripts in Russia's army, particularly the widespread practice of hazing that has claimed the lives of at least 85 recruits in the past five years. According the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, an independent antimilitary group, there are about 3,000 "noncombat" deaths annually, which result from accidents, crime, and suicide.
"The system is deadly for young people, but instead of changing it for the better, the generals just want to make sure they fill out their units with fresh recruits," says Valentina Melnikova, chair of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. "The threat to cancel student deferments is very serious, and it must be opposed."
The reforms were intended to "monetize" Russia's cumbersome welfare system by replacing in-kind benefits such as free public transit with cash supplements to pensions, disability payments, and public sector salaries.
But the measures have run into a storm of protest. The government has offered almost $4 billion in new money to placate the pensioners. And this week the Kremlin ordered armed forces salaries raised by 20 percent. "Just a couple of months ago Putin thought he was in total control and his popularity was unassailable. Now he's running scared," says Ms. Melnikova. "Our leaders just do not seem to understand how seriously their actions have threatened the population."
But a critical danger now is that Mr. Putin - whose popularity has been built on an an image of tough competence - risks looking weak and indecisive.
"The people have got it: you just blockade a highway and the authorities will cave in," says Ms. Lipman. "It's bad for the authorities, as it makes them a target for blackmail. To be firm, but without resorting to violence, they would have needed to be much better at decisionmaking and predicting consequences. It seems they are no good at that at all."