When Nadezhda Lyukshina was knocked down by a policeman during an unsanctioned street rally to protest the curbing of pensioners' benefits here last week, only her opinion of the Russian government was badly hurt.
"I told that policeman: 'I could be your great-grandmother, why are you attacking me?' But he just looked right through me with glassy eyes," says Ms. Lyukshina, a World War II combat veteran. "I have never before in my life been afraid of anyone wearing a Russian uniform, but I am now."
Russia has been plunged into an unexpected political crisis by a rising tide of protests, staged mainly by elderly pensioners, over market reforms that transferred many in-kind welfare benefits into cash payments on Jan. 1. Many of Russia's 40 million pensioners and disabled people complain that the compensation does not cover the loss of transport, housing utilities, subsidized medicines, and other privileges. But Kremlin efforts to defuse the situation, by putting more money on the table and restoring some benefits, appear to have had little effect.
Experts worry that the mood of discontent could soon spread to other social groups. "We can expect a real wave of demonstrations in February," as the impact of the reforms sinks in, says Mikhail Delyagin, director of the left- leaning Institute of Globalization Studies in Moscow. "This is not just about money. People who are not used to being offended by their government, such as pensioners and the Army, are feeling insulted by the cancellation of their benefits."
In recent days, elderly demonstrators have blocked a major thoroughfare here in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, choked the center of St. Petersburg, and rallied by the thousands in dozens of cities.
The Russian press has reported a spate of assaults by elderly passengers, used to traveling free on public transport, upon bus and train conductors who demanded fare. "[This reform] was the last straw," says Lyukshina, who says she's barely able to survive on her war veteran's pension. "We built this country, we fought for it, and they treat us like this. We are in a fighting mood now. I'm ready to go out and block the roads every day until they listen to us."
On Wednesday the government moved to partially restore public transport subsidies for pensioners, disabled people, military personnel, and other state workers, after General Vladimir Shamanov, a top Kremlin adviser, warned that soldiers might also "take to the streets" if their free travel privileges are not restored. But the new subsidies will cover only 30 percent of the transit cost for most pensioners. "These are just tricks designed to make us go home and be silent again," says Yury Fyodorov, a pensioner activist in Khimki. "Do they think we're sheep?"
The government blames opposition agitators for the unrest, though most experts say that even the powerful Communist Party - whose membership is mainly pensioners - was blindsided by the protests.
The Communists began gathering signatures this week to table a Duma vote of no-confidence in the government. Even if they get support from the needed 90 deputies, the measure is unlikely to pass in parliament, dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. The Communist Party, Russia's largest opposition group, is calling for a nationwide "day of protest" in February against the reforms.
The reforms, passed with little scrutiny last summer by the Duma majority, were intended to streamline the cumbersome welfare system inherited from the USSR. The intent was to give recipients money to purchase services in the marketplace and shift much of the burden for locally delivered benefits to regional governments. Many pensioners, and some experts, argue that the intention was always to save money at the elderly's expense. "The claim that we are moving from a Soviet system to a Western one was a purposeful lie, aimed at concealing the fact that this is a big financial affair," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.
According to Communist Party calculations, the full value of promised state benefits to some 100 million needy Russians was 1.5 trillion rubles last year, or about $50 billion. But only 550 billion rubles (about $18 billion) was actually paid out to fund the system last year. "The budget for 2005 provides only 160 billion rubles [about $5 billion]," says Vladimir Kashin, a leading Communist Duma deputy. "We are looking at a full-scale attack on the needs of the majority of people."
But one of the main authors of the welfare law, United Russia deputy Vitaly Shuba, insists there will be no backtracking on reform. "Ideologically, this law is right," he says. "There might be some corrections in the wording of the law, but the main thrust of it will remain."