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Russia's 'cotton revolution' shakes Putin
FOLLOWING THE 'orange revolution' in the Ukraine, Russia has been hit by what has been termed the 'cotton revolution' ('cotton' refers to the poor quality clothing worn by many pensioners). A huge wave of protests, mainly by pensioners, has swept the country in protest at the 'reform' of social security benefits.
Rob Jones, Moscow
What has made these protests significant is the speed with which the Putin regime has been forced to make significant concessions. The militant tactics of the demonstrators were encouraged by the pensioners from the town of Khimki - a Moscow suburb.
They blockaded the main Moscow-St Petersburg highway - the road to the country's main international airport. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of elderly in other cities have followed suit, blocking roads, laying siege to government buildings and, in the case of the Siberian pensioners, threatening to block the trans-Siberian railway.
The anger of the pensioners was directed at the so-called 'monetarisation of benefits'. Free transport and 50% reductions in housing costs for pensioners and other categories of the population, including soldiers and police, were abolished on 1 January to be replaced by a monetary compensation.
Typically, pensioners found that they were paid an extra 200 roubles a month (about five euros) but their transport costs alone quickly ate up this extra payment (a typical ticket on a bus now costs about 20 eurocents and frequently pensioners have to change buses or trams).
The new bills for housing are due which could lead to another wave of protests.
Perhaps the worst element of this reform has yet to hit - the change in healthcare subsidies. These are to be removed and each pensioner paid a standard sum - the government's argument is that this gives pensioners the right to chose. But there is no such thing as 'standard healthcare'.
PUTIN AND in particular the 'neo-liberal' ministers who have pushed through this reform were forced into a corner. They tried to blame the regional authorities for incompetence and stinginess in handing out the new payments but many are aware that the government has been running huge budget surpluses whilst continuing to cut back on benefits for ordinary people.
To avoid protests developing in their areas many regional authorities announced that several of the benefits, such as free transport would be financed from local budgets. But this was not enough to take the pressure off the federal government.
The pension increase due for April has been brought forward and the government has announced it will release up to $3 billion of the 'stabilisation fund' - money earned from the high oil price they were putting away for a rainy day.
The reaction of Putin's regime to the first protests were typical for what is in reality little more than a police state - a witch-hunt was launched to find the guilty.
In particular, an order appears to have been given to the police to pick out anyone under 45 on the demonstrations as likely trouble makers. Activists of Socialisticheskoye Soprotivleniye (CWI, Russia) have obviously fallen victim of this ruling!
At the same time one of the remarkable features of the protests has been that they have been largely spontaneous, with little involvement by any political parties in their organization. Only as the protests spread did the Communist Party, which is of course mainly now a party of pensioners, make any attempt to mobilise their supporters.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the demonstrators are not political. Increasingly anti-Putin demands are being raised and there is a thirst for political ideas even despite the high age of the demonstrators. Over 250 copies of the CWI paper were sold on the Khimki protests.
SIGNIFICANTLY, ALSO, there was a high awareness that 22 January is the anniversary of the first Russian revolution (1905). There was even an attempt to take a petition to Putin in the same way as 100 years ago the demonstrators tried to petition the Tsar for justice, before he turned the troops on them.
Not only has monetarisation led to an undermining of Putin's popularity (down 20% in the last year), they have also forced concessions.
The Minister of Defence has been forced to announce that the reform of conscription which he announced in December (which would have meant that students lose the "postponement" of their conscription whilst they study), will not be implemented in the near future.
The government are aware that a merging of the pensioners' movement with that of the students will be too much to handle.
After several years of a serious lull in protests movements of any sort, it now appears that once again the masses are beginning to stand up for their rights again.
In The Socialist 5 February 2005: