Russia: ‘Cotton revolution’ shakes Putin regime

Pensioners’ protests sweep the country

Following the so called ‘Orange Revolution’ in the Ukraine, Russia has been hit by what has been termed the ‘Cotton Revolution’. A huge wave of protests, mainly by pensioners, has swept the country in protest at the reform of the subsidies traditionally paid to pensioners for housing, health and transport.

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 situated just outside the city. They blockaded the main Moscow- St Petersburg highway. This is of particular significance because it is also the road to the country’s main international airport. Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of elderly people 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 2005, to be replaced by a ‘monetary compensation’. Typically, pensioners found that they were paid an extra 200 rubles a month (about 5 euros) but their transport costs alone quickly ate this extra payment up (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 this week, which could lead to another wave of protests.

Perhaps the worst element of this reform has yet to hit – the change in health care 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 health care. One person may need no more than headache pills, whilst another may need expensive drugs.

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 people are aware that the government has been running huge budget surpluses, whilst continuing to cut back on benefits for working 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 dollars of its "stabilization fund" – money earned from the high oil prices that they were putting away for a rainy day. It remains to be seen whether any of the ministers directly involved in pushing through this reform will be sacked or forced to resign. It is now being widely discussed that Premier Fradkov will only last a few months longer.

These events confirm that Putin’s attempts to bring everything under his personal control are failing. The reaction of his regime to the first protests – – a witch hunt to find the ‘guilty’ – was typical for what is, in reality, little more than a police state. In particular, an order appears to have been given to the police to pick out anyone under 45 years on the demonstrations, because they are ‘likely trouble makers’. Activists of Socialisticheskoye Soprotivleniye (CWI) have obviously fallen victim of this ruling.

At the same time, one of the remarkable features of the protests is that they have been largely spontaneous, with little involvement by any political parties. Only once the protests spread did the Communist Party, which is of course mainly now a party of pensioners makes any attempt to mobilise their supporters.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that the demonstrators are non-political. Increasingly, anti-Putin demands are being raised and there is a thirst for political ideas, even despite the high age of the demonstrators. As an indication of this radicalisation, over 250 copies of the CWI paper were sold on the Khimki protests.

1905 Revolution invoked by protesters

Significantly there is also a high awareness that this month is the 100th anniversary of the first Russian Revolution (1905), and, on 22 January, there was even an attempt to take a petition to Putin in the same way as 100 years ago demonstrators tried to petition the ruling Tsar for justice, before he turned the troops on them.

Not only has ‘monetarisation’ led to an undermining of Putin’s support, with over a 20% drop in his popularity over the past year, his cuts policies have led to mass protests and forced concessions from the government. The Minister of Defense has been forced to announce that the reform of conscription (announced last December), and which would have meant that students loose the "postponement" of their conscription while they study, will not be carried out in the near future. The government is aware that a merging of the pensioners’ movement with that of the students would be too much to handle.

Without a doubt, the events at the end of last year in the Ukraine, which showed that by taking to the streets the masses could force change, have encouraged this movement in Russia. At the same time, Russia’s protests are a harbinger of what will happen further in the Ukraine. The new Prime Minister of Ukraine, Viktor Yuschenko, is surrounded by economic advisors, including those from the UN, who are trying to push him into also carrying out the ‘monetarisation’ of benefits.

After several years of a serious lull in protests movements of any sort in Russia, and throughout most of the CIS, it now appears that once again the masses in these countries are beginning to stand up for their rights again.

Clearly all the benefits that have been "monetarised" should be reinstated immediately. But the problems faced by pensioners lie deeper than simply the level of state benefits. The privatisation of the transport system has led to the position where private owners refuse to carry non-paying passengers, arguing they take the places of paying passengers. Rents and housing charges have also been rising. Health services are becoming more expensive, partly due to the list of medicines available on prescription being cut, leaving those that need the more expensive treatments to pay for them.

End privatisation, stop attacks on democratic rights!

Socialists say that privatisation has to be stopped and that health care, housing and transport have to be taken back into public ownership, with proper resources and subsidies paid from the steadily increasing profits the state makes from the sale of oil and gas. Government plans to reform the pension system should be immediately scrapped and all pensioners paid a decent pension.

Persecution of activists by the state has to cease and all political prisoners should be released immediately. Only recently a group of activists from the National Bolshevik Party (an extreme right wing party that uses left symbols and dogma to attract youth) were sentenced to 5 years in jail for occupying the Minister of Education’s Office. Whilst having no sympathy for the views of this party, these extreme sentences are intended as a warning to all opponents of the Putin regime. Once again activists of Sotsialisticheskoe Soprotivleniye (CWI) are coming under attack.

We also fully support the calls raised on many of the protests for the the government and Putin to go. But this also raises the question of what replaces them. Clearly, even the communist party, which has a certain base of electoral support amongst the pensioners, is nevertheless incapable of putting forward a programme to solve any of the problems pensioners and working people face. The coming period is likely to see further protests, as people see that it is possible to defeat the government, and as attacks on living standards and civil and democratic rights continue. Activists in the current struggle need to link-up to widen the movement to involve students, army conscripts, workers and the oppressed minorities. Such a movement would provide the basis for forming a real alternative to the present government and could start to build a workers’ party with mass appeal, capable of fighting to end this rotten capitalist system that allows the Abramovichs and Khordokovskiis (oligarchs) to accumulate billions, while millions of pensioners are left without the very basics to sustain a tolerable life.

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