President Vladimir Putin on Monday promised a moderate increase in pensions and blamed federal and regional officials for failing to properly implement recent Kremlin-sponsored restructuring of social benefits. His statement appeared to be an effort to assuage growing public anger in Russia over benefit cuts.
Putin's first comments on the issue came as lines of police blocked hundreds of protesters from retaking a major intersection in central St. Petersburg, his home town. Thousands of pensioners occupied the intersection Saturday and Sunday, bringing traffic to a halt.
The protests, which have spread to numerous cities across Russia's 11 time zones, were triggered by a law enacted Jan. 1 that gives retirees, the disabled and war veterans cash stipends instead of benefits such as free public medicine and mass transit. Protesters say new monthly payments of about $10 are worth much less than the benefits, leaving them to make hard choices about food, drugs and transportation.
The benefit cuts sparked the largest outburst of public anger in Putin's nearly five years in power. "The cabinet and the regions have failed to fully implement the task we had discussed: not to worsen the position of those who need the state's help," a somber-looking Putin told cabinet members in a partially televised session.
The Kremlin has described the new law as a long-overdue effort to streamline and modernize the economy, but many commentators predict now that Putin may respond to the crisis by firing government ministers.
Putin defended the law, saying its general concept was right because the state could not afford to maintain the existing unwieldy and inefficient social support system.
Putin supported decisions by some local officials to issue subsidized passes allowing free travel. He also instructed the government to increase the basic monthly pension by at least $7.13 instead of the planned $3.56 and to do it on March 1 instead of April 1. But protesters across Russia have demanded a bigger hike, saying an average monthly pension of about $80 cannot cover their rising living costs.
In St. Petersburg, the mostly elderly protesters kept from blocking the intersection stayed on the sidewalks, shouting "Shame!" and "Down with Putin!" and beating spoons against saucepans.
Many elderly people said they considered the change a final insult after they were left struggling to survive on meager pensions in an inflationary capitalist Russia when the state welfare system collapsed with the Soviet Union in 1991. "They robbed us, and they treat us like dirt," said Lyudmila Ivanova, 67. "We want decent retirement conditions."
The wave of protests has forced concessions from authorities in many regions. Officials in St. Petersburg promised subsidized travel passes, and the Moscow region pledged to restore free rides on public transport for all retirees after they repeatedly blocked key highways.