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Cutbacks in social benefits spark protests in Russia

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—Thousands of angry pensioners and activists marched through the frigid streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow on Saturday to denounce recent government cutbacks in social benefits.

At the center of the march in St. Petersburg, which drew an estimated 5,000 protesters, were retirees and military veterans outraged over a new federal law that eliminates their free bus and subway transportation, as well as subsidies for telephone service, utility bills and prescription medicines.

Some 36 million Russians receive the benefits, which are a legacy of the Soviet era.

"The government thought they could quietly pass this law and the people would tolerate it, just like they always tolerate everything, but this became an unbearable burden for our elderly," said Natalya Yevdokimova, a liberal member of the St. Petersburg parliament.

"The people simply had no way out. If they hadn't gone into the streets, the government would never have lifted a finger."

Protests by pensioners began two weeks ago in 43 of Russia's 89 regions. Senior citizens blocked highways and stormed municipal offices, and there were reports of crutch-wielding pensioners attacking bus drivers.

The size, scope and anger of the protests stunned officials in Moscow, who at first blamed "radicals" and "terrorists" for inciting the rallies. Federal officials then accused regional authorities of bungling the implementation of the new law.

The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin reversed itself last week and restored free transportation for 2005. It plans to provide monthly stipends of 230 rubles (about $8.30) that may be used to buy passes good for unlimited municipal transport. Changes to other benefits are being reviewed.

Saturday's march in St. Petersburg was an unlikely collection of angry pensioners, liberal democrats, communists, retired military officers, university students and members of the radical National Bolshevik Party. It also marked the first appearance of a new opposition youth group, Walking Without Putin.

Signs called for Putin's resignation, and some marchers wore orange scarves, a nod to the "Orange Revolution" that helped reverse a rigged presidential election and bring opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko to power in Ukraine.

Many activists are hoping the benefits issue will finally unite Russia's fractious opposition. It remains weak, however, and although his approval ratings have slipped recently, Putin remains popular.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RUSSIA-PROTESTS

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