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Thousands of Russians Protest New Benefits Plan

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page A21

MOSCOW, Feb. 12 -- An estimated quarter-million Russians took to the streets Saturday in a wave of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations over a controversial retirement benefits plan, which has prompted the first murmurings of serious opposition to the government of President Vladimir Putin.

Dissatisfaction with a new law that replaces benefits such as free transportation and subsidized drugs for millions of pensioners with tiny cash payments has drawn thousands of people onto the streets in the past month. And Saturday, at over 200 rallies in 70 cities, from St. Petersburg to the Far East, the country witnessed the most widespread demonstrations of Putin's presidency.

Plainclothes security guards with red armbands arrest an anti-Putin protester during a pro-Putin rally in downtown St. Petersburg, the Russian president's home town. (Dmitry Lovetsky -- AP)

"People, standing shoulder to shoulder, understood and felt today that they are the real power," Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said at a rally of about 3,000 people at a monument to Vladimir Lenin. "We need to continue our onslaught until a government defending national interests is established."

The rising public anger has rattled the government. It survived a vote of no confidence in parliament Thursday but has been forced to apologize and hike pension payments to compensate the elderly and other recipients of social assistance, including veterans and the disabled. The opposition only mustered 112 votes for its no-confidence motion in the 450-seat parliament, but most members of the normally pro-Kremlin United Russia party abstained, reflecting the disquiet in pro-government circles.

Up to 40,000 pro-Putin demonstrators marched through Moscow on Saturday, according to the Interior Ministry, dwarfing the rally organized by the Communist Party. There also were pro- and anti-Putin rallies in St. Petersburg, Putin's home town, where the first protests against the benefit cuts began when they were introduced last month.

"We came here today to support our president," said Andrei Metelsky, a deputy in the Moscow city assembly. "We came here today to save our democracy from ruin."

"Maintain stability, support the president," read a large banner being carried at the front of the pro-Putin march in Moscow.

Echo Moskvy radio station reported that some people at the Putin rally, including workers and soldiers, said they were forced to attend by their bosses.

Putin has reprimanded some members of the government and some regional officials for botching the introduction of cash benefits, but the popular unrest has begun to affect his still-high popularity.

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