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Associated Press, August 3, 2004

Russian Parliament Tackles Controversial Social Reform

MOSCOW (AP)--Russia 's Kremlin-dominated parliament Tuesday considered a hotly debated bill that would eliminate an array of Soviet-era social benefits for millions of some of the country's most vulnerable citizens - including pensioners and World War II veterans - and replace them with small cash payments.

Advocates of the government-backed bill say that substituting benefits like free transportation and health care with cash will make social aid more targeted, since rural areas have scarce public transportation and many subsidized medicines are undersupplied. They also argue that the measure will be an important step in streamlining the country's laborious bureaucracy.

But opponents of the widely unpopular bill, which has sparked numerous protests across Russia, say that the proposed payments ranging from 800 rubles (US$27) to 3,500 rubles (US$120) a month are too meager and will be eaten away quickly by inflation. They also say some privileges -like job guarantees and university quotas for the disabled -are not subject to any monetary compensation.

"This bill violates the Constitution, which explicitly forbids passing laws which change the lives of the citizens for the worse," independent lawmaker Svetlana Goryacheva told reporters Tuesday.

The bill is part of the unpopular and potentially painful reforms Russian president Vladimir Putin pledged to tackle during his second term.

"Scientists first experiment on animals. But our government is experimenting on people, on the whole country," said Gennady Seleznyov, the former speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, who now is an independent lawmaker.

Both Seleznyov and Goryacheva complained about how the bill was being pushed quickly through parliament. Citing numerous procedural violations, they said lawmakers weren't given enough time to study the several hundred pages-long draft.

Many lawmakers are having trouble tracking down their amendments in the voluminous bill, they said.

"This is what happens when you have a one-party parliament," Goryacheva said. The Kremlin-directed United Russia party has an overwhelming majority in the Duma.

In the latest series of protests, dozens of activists from the liberal Yabloko party and the Communist party rallied near the Russian parliament building, which itself was cordoned-off by police, urging lawmakers to preserve the benefits.

But despite the protests, the Duma is expected to easily sail the bill through Tuesday's key second reading. The third and final reading would be mostly technical, and the bill then has to be approved by the parliament's upper house, which is obedient to the Kremlin, and signed into law by the president.


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Social Policies

Associated Press, August 3, 2004

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