|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Protests take the gloss off Putin’s presidency
THE ‘MONETARISATION of social benefits’ is the terminology being used by President Putin’s government to cover the latest attack on the living standards of the poor. And it’s some attack! Many pensioners, students, invalids, veterans, single mothers and victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster will suffer big drops in living standards.
Since Soviet times, all these categories of people have received a wide range of social benefits, from free medical care and travel to discounted holidays. As living standards have plummeted with the introduction of the market, these benefits have often made the difference between dignified life and subhuman existence. This is particularly the case with people such as the Chernobyl victims, most of whom volunteered to fight the fire raging in the atomic power station without proper protective clothing, to prevent the catastrophe being even worse than it was. Obviously, many of these heroes are now suffering from severe illnesses.
Pensioners are another category who have already suffered huge indignities under capitalism. Public transport in many areas consists of buses and minibuses. These routes have been handed over to private operators with no regulation. In earlier times, pensioners had free travel, but now the private operators usually place signs on the doors limiting the number of free places to one or two a vehicle.
Monetarisation means that instead of these benefits, a money sum will be paid as compensation. In effect, the federal budget is being relieved of responsibility for social benefits. In future, regional authorities will have to foot the bill and most regions simply do not have the money to do so. Already, in many regions the payment of pensions and other benefits is already delayed, now the sick and elderly will have to pay cash for things they earlier got for free with no guarantee they will ever get the money on time.
In addition, there is the absurdity of the government’s logic. They pay the same lump sum of money to all pensioners but when these same pensioners are ill, they all require different treatments at different costs. So some will have extra cash while others will be desperately short.
This package is not just monetary. A key part is the drive from the federal government to make local hospitals and clinics more ‘financially effective’ by forcing them into competition with one another. Grants from the regions will depend on the number of patients treated. In Russia, this will deal a fatal blow to many local clinics. When there are often tens of miles between villages, elderly patients will end up traveling for hours for treatment.
So arrogant is the government now that it rushed this law through its three readings in a couple of weeks, specially recalling parliament in the August holiday for a day to do so. Once through the Duma, it was then nodded through the Senate. But few people have been taken in by the government’s claims that monetary compensation will make up for the losses: 58% of the population say they will worse off as a result of this ‘reform’.
Rushing through these reforms is only serving to heighten the discontent felt by many. Even with the short warning, a number of protests took place with up to 3,000 invalids and Chernobyl victims protesting near Red Square at the end of July. These are the first significant protests for several years, which have succeeded in unifying different interests.
They took place against the background of a number of other significant events that are taking the gloss off the Putin presidency. The court case against Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovskii, the banking crisis which has seen nine smaller banks shut their doors, the continued fighting in Chechnya, and now the threat of war in neighbouring Georgia between the central Georgian government and Russian-backed South Ossetia, are all beginning to demonstrate that, despite his image, Putin is not able to control everything. For the first time since his initial election five years ago, his rating has now fallen below 50%.
The tragedy of today’s Russia is that there is no force in society capable of mobilising this opposition. The Communist Party has suffered an extraordinary crisis. At the start of its congress in July, which was meant to be a post mortem on the poor showing in the December and March election campaigns, a split was organised by regional governors, backed by the millionaire businessman Semigin. They took almost half the delegates to an alternative congress – on a boat so that no-one could leave.
The current leader, Zyuganov, was left speaking in a candle-lit conference hall. With some justice, he accused the alternative party of being in league with the Kremlin. But after the congress, Putin phoned Zhuganov to ‘express his concern’ at what had happened and to ask for more information. It is now clear that the Kremlin have basically blackmailed Zyuganov into being a tame opposition. In return, the alternative party was not allowed to register.
In this vacuum, forces such as Socialist Resistance (the Russian CWI) and the organisations around the left Deputy Oleg Shein can play a role out of proportion to their relatively small numbers. This puts Shein under severe pressure. Having tried to relaunch his Party of Labour after the parliamentary elections, he is already arguing that it shouldn’t raise its profile on protests for fear of frightening other people off. Although he plays a good role in mobilising protests, he fails to turn these protests in a more political direction.
The political vacuum also has another consequence – in the absence of a mass party to channel anger, and with all other political forces now concentrated into Putin’s one-party system, the discontent is being expressed even within Putin’s own party. Even the official trade union federation, whose leaders have been studying Putin’s rear anatomy for years, are now muttering about the need for a one-day warning strike.
Now the long summer is over – it has not been very hot this year. But the autumn is showing signs that it might be.