Russia plans to abolish benefits

October 29, 2004

A winter of discontent is looming for Russia's million-plus state university students as activists begin to mobilise against plans by President Vladimir Putin to scrap long-established benefits and replace them with cash payments.

The scheme, part of a raft of controversial social and political measures pushed through a parliament dominated by Putin loyalists, is due to take effect from January, subject to final government approval.

It will end guarantees of free university education and scrap benefits that include rights to subsidised or discounted medical treatment, holidays, transport, housing and food. Opponents fear the cash payments will be inadequate and will not keep pace with inflation.

Critics say the measures - which extend to social benefits for pensioners, war veterans, the disabled and other groups that encompass more than 30 million of Russia's 140 million population - will open the way to back-door privatisation and are arguably anti-constitutional.

Oleg Denisov, head of the Russian Association of Students' Unions, an organisation that includes 1.2 million members drawn from more than 328 state and private universities, said: "I believe the measures to be anti-constitutional. We have an article in the constitution that states that Russia is a social state. Relieving government of all social obligations runs counter to the constitution. We must fight for our rights."

Mr Denisov added: "Investment in students is an investment in the country's future."

The unions plan actions to raise public awareness of students' plight, to lobby the Education Ministry and other branches of government and "all legitimate measures to influence the passage of the bill", Mr Denisov added.

Demonstrations in Moscow and 40 other cities across Russia in early October attracted several thousands. This number was reduced by security measures following the Beslan school tragedy, which led the authorities to ban many street protests, Mr Denisov said.

He stressed that another danger posed by the benefit reforms was that, if implemented, they might lead to "chaotic demonstrations that could be hijacked by radical elements for their own purposes".

Andrei Fursenko, the Education Minister, told Radio Ekho Moskvy that the state must play a part in funding education, but there were valid arguments over how much a student could be expected to contribute.

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