Social unrest in the new year: expecting a political tsunami


There has been a stormy start to the new year in Russia. According to the media, the ten-day holiday period was met with incomprehension, at best, rather than the expected gratitude towards the kindly authorities; and it ended with the “benefits rebellion.”

Predictably, a few people pointed out a direct connection between these events. For example, Governor Vasili Bochkarev of the Penza region told Kommersant-Vlast magazine that because the federal government’s financial departments were on vacation for ten days, many war veterans and invalids were unable to receive their compensation payments on time.

Actually, a great many theories have been expressed about the “calico wave” (an expression spreading from one publication to another) that has swept Russia in mid-January: theories about its causes, and who is to blame.

The Kommersant newspaper reports that the United Russia party immediately declared, via its leader Boris Gryzlov, that protests by citizens are due to the law on monetizing benefits being “improperly implemented at the regional level.” Another prominent United Russia member and trade union leader, Andrei Isayev, immediately threatened that United Russia would investigate – and report to the Prosecutor General’s Office, if necessary – each and every instance of the law being interpreted in the regions.

However, as Kommersant comments, the regional authorities have done everything strictly in accordance with the law; in many cases they have done even more than they were required to do, since they were concerned about events developing in precisely this way.

Nevertheless, the Pension Fund also shifted the blame onto regional leaders. Vladimir Vyunitsky, adviser to the Pension Fund chairman, told Vremya Novostei that about 80% of the compensation payments due were paid to the recipients as far back as late December, while the rest would be paid within next few days. “The people are protesting not because of delays with regular monthly payments, but because in-kind benefits have been abolished, primarily for free public transport; but this problem has nothing to do with the Pension Fund,” Vyunitsky stressed.

In their turn, the regional leaders are in no hurry to accept the blame. Specifically, Boris Gromov, governor of the Moscow region, where the “benefit revolts” started, told Vremya Novostei that some “dark forces” had incited pensioners into protests and are now cunningly taking advantage of the problems “of the transition period, linked to implementing the new legislation, in order to organize such demonstrations and take provocative actions.”

The police of the Moscow region immediately announced the start of criminal proceedings of administrative violations against 12 residents of Khimki, who were regarded as organizers of a “benefit” meeting. However, this approach seemed to be mild to governor Gromov and he said he’d insist on instituting criminal proceedings against the “instigators.”

Meanwhile, according to Kommersant, the first lawsuits contesting the local law on monetization of benefits were lodged in St. Petersburg; the plaintiffs intend to refer to the Russian Constitution, Article 55 of which says that the laws mustn’t be published in Russia which either cancel or derogate civil liberties, says prominent lawyer Boris Vishnevsky, a mouthpiece for the plaintiffs.

Even the church considered it necessary to interfere. As reported by Kommersant, Patriarch Alexii II, “who has been demonstratively loyal to the powers-that-be over past several years” decided to announce his opinion on this account.

At first, however, he diplomatically noted that “the church has no intention to show to the state which exactly economic mechanisms it should apply when implementing the social policy.” Nonetheless he reminds that “this policy must be fair and effective, understandable for the people,” whereas “the latest events indicate that these principles haven’t been applied properly.”

The patriarch emphasized that “the reforms should in no way deprive the people of a real opportunity to use the transport and communications facilities, preserve their housing, have access to medical aid and medicines.”

Alexii II called the authorities “to give what the people should have under the law and under the supreme, moral right as soon as possible.”

Top military officials were the next to criticize the reform. In particular, as informed by Kommersant, Army General Vladimir Mikhailov, the Air Force commander-in-chief noted that “the law on cancellation of benefits, which has primarily affected the position of young officers, whose salaries are low as it is.”

On this occasion Vedomosti published a special survey of living standards in the Russian Armed Forces.

Even the bonus of 770 rubles for monetary allowances from January 1 (this sum is meant to partially make up for inflation and partially for the cancellation of free travel) is not changing the situation, says Vedomosti: the average salary of a Russian lieutenant remains lower than that of his counterparts in other CIS countries, let alone junior officers in the West. It has been calculated that a Russian lieutenant, a company commander at a non-combatant mechanized infantry division stationed in the North Caucasus, earns about $160 a month, while the salaries of lieutenants in armies of Belarus or Kazakhstan are about $220.

The Defense Ministry’s central staff explained to Vedomosti that determining average pay for junior commanders is difficult: “Sometimes the salary of a lieutenant depends on the bonuses set by the unit commander.”

The situation is no better in the central staff: “Nobody has yet received the salary increases mandated by the president’s decree in September; neither have we been paid compensation for travel; we are paying this all out of our pockets.”

At the same time, these salary increases for central staff officers generated indignation in the troops, since the head of a military department in Moscow will now earn two or three times more than a combatant officer of the same rank.

In general, the Kremlin doesn’t have to rely on the extreme loyalty of army officers presently.

The police, which have been stripped of the right for free travel, are also indignant. Since the policemen are used to acting without ceremonies, the entire country got to know about an incident in Kaliningrad, a ticket controller who demanded policemen to pay the fare was delivered into a nearest police precinct.

Novaya Gazeta reminds that the Internal Troops, which have been deprived of the travel benefits, are involved in guarding some “extremely dangerous and quite attractive for terrorists objects” – scientific research institutes with nuclear reactors, research laboratories, which store biological weapons created formerly, nuclear objects.

In some cases, security guards can’t get to work: an ensign residing the suburbs of Moscow and working in Moscow calculated that the travel expenses would swallow 80% of his wage. These calculations were handed over to the immediate supervisors and higher. However, the ensign is distressed because “all calculations got lost and the generals were afraid to pass them to the top… Putin was ultimately clear: it would only be better after monetization of benefits.”

Meanwhile, auditor Valery Goreglyad of the Auditing Chamber told Vremya Novostei that in its report on the bill on monetization of benefits the Auditing Chamber pointed out to initiators of the bill – the government and the lawmakers – to weak points of the document. However, initiators of the reform “preferred to shut their eyes to these remarks.”

According to Goreglyad, the regions proved to be lacking 50 billion rubles to complete the reform; this amount wasn’t obtained from the required financial sources, not to mention the fact that even calculating the general number of benefit recipients was a failure: “by veterans of the Chernobyl clean-up alone, our assessments diverged by 100% from the government’s assessments.”

In general, concludes Nezavisimaya Gazeta, it has been clear that “the large-scale propagation of social revolts throughout Russia is very likely.”

Any at least slightly opposed parties immediately tried to take advantage of this wave.

As reported by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Communist Party (CPRF) promised to bring thousands of its supporters out on the streets in protest. CPRF Central Council Secretary Oleg Shein said these actions are “pilot protests,” since they emerged in several major cities by now. Nevertheless, in Samara and Ufa the communists managed to assemble huge meetings and blockaded the transport mainlines.

Members of the Party of Pensioners in Vladimir admit that they failed to cope with the genie they’d let out. In spite of their efforts to avoid any serious incidents the infuriated pensioners got out of control. The traffic was blockaded either.

Motherland leaders declared their readiness to lead the movement of protest. “We won’t be debating with United Russia at the Duma anymore – this is of no use. The opposition is being forced into the street, where it leads the protest actions,” Dmitri Rogozin said.

“Interestingly enough, legally deputies of the opposition can easily lead the armies of benefit recipients: parliamentary immunity protects them from criminal responsibility, which the authorities are using to intimidate instigators of the protests,” says Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Thus, according to Dmitri Rogozin, “this may all end in a Russian-manner square, since the authorities are now acknowledging their complete weakness.”

However, many analysts tend to regard drastic forecasts skeptically enough.

“No political subject exists in Russia now, who could come to power ‘via the square.’ The entire opposition is integrated in the system; therefore they pose no danger to the Kremlin, since they cannot live without a state dacha, a car with blinking lights and invitation to a reception at the Kremlin,” says well-known political consultant Stanislav Belkovsky in Novye Izvestia.

Nevertheless, Belkovsky admits that the “orange specter” scares many people nowadays: “Because the authorities have no techniques of cooperation with the mob. They cannot deliver a message to the people, which would be absolutely comprehensible. One mistake after another is made in communication with the people.”

“The authorities have lost the ability for a dialog with the public. I have a feeling that the people who make decisions get distorted and incomplete information and they fail to realize that the peat is on fire, though no flames are visible,” Yevgeny Gontmakher, research leader at the Center for Social Studies and Innovations, says in an article for Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Hardly any of observers doubt that the present-day actions only make the first wave.

“Elimination of free education and medical care will follow monetization of benefits. One doesn’t have to be an astrologer, political consultant or futurologist to say that the authorities will remember the year of 2005 as the year of mass unrest,” says the Russkii Kurier newspaper.

The newspaper notes that two laws will take effect this coming year: on state guarantees for medical care and on compulsory medical insurance. Under the first law, free medical care programs will be limited to a definite minimal amount. A patient will have to cover any extra expenses. Moreover, even the ambulance teams will be oriented at reducing the number of hospitalization – under the medical statistics at least 30% of hospitalization cases are unfounded. This list could be continued.

The situation is no better in the education sphere: private schools have lost the state support; privileged travel and free meals have been abolished for school students, as well as extra pays to rural teachers.

According to Russkii Kurier, the situation in the sphere of education will get clearer in spring. Undergraduates will face the new reality in autumn. If the Duma passes proposals of Andrei Fursenko, the minister of education and science, “only remembrances will remain from free diplomas,” notes Russkii Kurier.

The school students are unlikely to go into the streets, says Russkii Kurier, but their parents are unlikely to obey the new order. One should take account of the fact that “the generation aged 30-40 always makes up the foundation of any state, and their loyalty is more importance for any government than the loyalty of all pensioners combined.”

The students will join this and one can be sure that due to the young age and radicalism typical of that age they are unlikely to debate over the educational reform at the academic level, like their professors. “They’ll have much more mayonnaise and raw eggs than Fursenko and Zurabov have suits.” Besides, there are persons who can lead them. “If the authorities are unable to listen, other weapons are used. We won’t be sitting back,” an anonymous female activist of the Vanguard of Red Youth told Russkii Kurier.

“The sense of Putin’s initiatives on cancellation of gubernatorial elections done in September has finally become clear. After amendments were introduced into the Tax Code last spring, which redistributed the financial flows between the center and the regions in favor of the former, after monetization of benefits and searching the guilty among local leaders one can only run for governor under an escort,” Olga Romanova says in Vedomosti.

Besides, there’s an understanding in the regions that the current protests by pensioners are only the first signs of unrest, while the worst is yet to come. “The worst comes when pensioners, budget recipients, the disabled, orphans and military families start getting new apartment bills.”

However, this “may become even worse by April when the pensioners get to their dachas and face the problem of travel in suburban electric trains.” Many of those who take part in actions of protest now haven’t yet visited drug stores; bills for new housing services will arrive in late January: “It comes very soon.”

Mikhail Deliagin, president of the Globalization Institute, maintains that the main outbreak of protests starts in late January and early February, “when the people receive meager payments instead of benefits and see that they are being shamelessly robbed.” The authorities are preparing for this, Deliagin said in his interview with Novaya Gazeta: “The reports on the protests will be hushed up thoroughly, and in case this is a failure a propagandistic machinery of defaming the protest actions will be launched: allegedly, some drunkards or mentally handicapped persons whom the damned oligarchs paid are protesting.”

In the opinion of Deliagin, the financial situation of the militants may grow better to avoid their solidarity with the elderly: “The authorities have been hysterically scared with OMON soldiers’ compassion for pensioners who they were ordered to disperse.”

Deliagin also admits that the center may “transfer some money into the regions, deliberately small amounts, since the purpose of monetization of benefits is aimed at saving tens of billions of rubles for the federal budget.”

Besides, in Deliagin’s opinion, Zurabov is likely to be dismissed – “as one of the guilty persons,” and so is Fradkov, “who is not to blame.”

According to Deliagin, the conflict might be settled definitively only “within several years when Putin leaves and, hopefully, some other person start conducting reasonable policy and restore a rational part of the benefits.”

Stanislav Belkovsky replies to a “naive” question from Moskovskii Komsomolets: “Will the authorities manage to implement the monetization of benefits?” with another question: “Is it possible to introduce compulsory drinking of hard liquor five times a day in an Islamic state?”

In the opinion of Belkovsky, “the monetization contradicts the spirit of Russian statehood, and statehood may collapse if the monetization is pushed through.” He even expressed the hope to Moskovskii Komsomolets that the Kremlin “will find enough tactical wisdom to stop the monetization and dismiss the scapegoat – Fradkov’s Cabinet, by publicly and openly holding it responsible for a systemic error.” According to Belkovsky, this is the only decision which may “extend the life of Putin’s regime.”

However, Vladimir Pribylovsky, director of the Panorama data center, told Russkii Kurier that it would be “wasteful” to dismiss Fradkov’s government in view of the upcoming unrest with regard to a rise in the cost of the communal services and travel fares in suburban trains. According to Pribylovsky, the major problem could be formulated as follows: “Will Fradkov stand up until the next parliamentary election or is to be removed earlier as a result of tension in the social strife?”

“The presidential administration will be supporting the government to sacrifice it when it encounters real problems, which might threaten the president’s popularity rating,” Dmitri Badovsky, an expert at the Institute for Social Systems at Moscow State University asserts in Gazeta. He also expects new waves of social unrest within months.

Besides, says Badovsky, United Russia – which pushed the bill on monetization of benefits through the Duma, and which is now exposed to severe criticism by the opposition for doing this – may regard even hypothetical talks about the cabinet dismissal as its “life buoy.” Badovsky has no doubts that in case of selecting between rescuing the government and United Russia the latter will be chosen: “Otherwise all projects linked to the party – appointment of governors, election into regional legislatures and formation of the new Duma on the eve of the presidential election – become loose.”

In general, according to Gazeta, “the government won’t be swept by the first wave.”

The Kremlin considers that it is premature to dismiss the government at this stage, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

The protest movement will evidently intensify, spreading to more areas of Russia and more social groups. “Under the circumstances, the Fradkov government and whichever government replaces it are automatically doomed. No wonder the news that Fradkov might step down was alarming for Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov,” whom the media name as the most likely contender for prime minister, stresses Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

“The next prime minister could, in theory, become Putin’s designated successor; but a promotion to prime minister under the current circumstances would certainly be a false start for Gryzlov.”

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Kremlin has elaborated its own counteractions to the growing wave of protests: “no dismissals at this point, no strong-arm tactics, and no significant concessions to benefit recipients.”

At the very start of Putin’s rise to power, he was called “the president of hope,” recall Yevgeny Kiselev, editor-in-chief of Moskovskiy Novosti weekly: “As of now, he is called the president of might-have-been expectations.”

Many hoped, says Kiselev, that Putin will establish order in Russia: “start combating corruption, clans, nepotism in politics; at least partly solve the fundamental problems of Russia: poverty, colossal social disparity, the gap in science, modern education and medicine, colossal deterioration of capital assets, high premature death rates, the demographic crisis.” Nothing of this has happened.

Likewise, many other things haven’t happened either: “Universal compulsory military service is now being prepared, instead of the military reform and a professional army… We are having utter chaos instead of administrative reforms. Instead of court reforms, we are facing the Basmannyi disease of justice. Instead of old Kremlin’s family circle – we have the family of secret service agents from St. Petersburg…”

No wonder that the social support basis of the regime is shrinking, notes Kiselev.

Indeed, mainly convinced liberals were criticizing the president previously. But in the streets now are people who “don’t actually care about gubernatorial elections being abolished, or the destruction of YUKOS, or the espionage trials.” These people don’t care about Khodorkovsky, the Union of Right Forces, or Yabloko; they don’t give a damn about the issues of democratic liberties. “When passing a decision of bringing back the old Soviet-era music for the national anthem, fomenting an anti-oligarchic campaign, hinting at the opportunity of revising results of the privatization carried out in the 1990s, during his public display of nostalgia for disintegration of the Soviet Union Putin was fighting for votes of those very citizens.” He may now lose their support.

As for the political elite and the president’s inner circle – none of the analysts are venturing to predict their reaction in the event that Putin’s notorious “Teflon approval rating” disappears in the blink of an eye.

One thing is clear: within next few months Russia could experience a social and political tsunami. And no one can predict what the Russian political landscape will look like after the forthcoming upheavals.