Harder times for the poor

Observations on Russia

Adecade after the fall of communism, Russia continues to argue over the fairest path to reform. This summer members of the Russian parliament are having to postpone their annual exodus while a 600-page welfare reform bill goes through the legislature. It proposes to abolish the poorest Russians' entitlements to free or subsidised medication, transport and utilities. Instead, they will get small cash payments.

At least a fifth of the population (32 million people) stand to lose. When President Putin's United Russia Party steered the bill through its first reading in the Duma earlier this year, 2,000 people protested. For the first time in a decade, the parliament building was cordoned off.

The Kremlin and its defenders claim the measure will tackle the false claims and kickbacks that undermine the current system. But critics say that the savings, estimated to be in the region of 171bn rubles a year, will hit vulnerable people such as old people, single mothers, the disabled, former Soviet dissidents and Chernobyl clean-up workers. Oksana Dmitriyeva, a former social security minister, calculates that a disabled child, who now gets benefits of 1,160-4,660 rubles a month, may get as little as 1,000 rubles under the new proposals. Other plans are afoot to reduce state social spending. The latest federal budget shows that expenditure on education, health and social security will fall in real or even in absolute terms. But defence, law enforcement and national security's share of spending will grow by 19 per cent, so that they account for nearly a third of the budget.

Under the Soviet Union, the promise of the good life frequently collided with a very different reality. The coming months will reveal how Putin's regressive welfare reforms and his promises to tackle poverty will play out in Russia's new "managed democracy".