Cabinet Defends Its Record in Duma

Itar-TassMinisters Igor Levitin, Vladimir Yakovlev, Alexei Kudrin, Alexander Zhukov and Mikhail Zurabov, from left to right, attending Wednesday's Duma session.
The Cabinet came under heavy criticism in the State Duma on Wednesday over the unpopular welfare reforms that triggered the worst public discontent of Vladimir Putin's presidency.

Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin claimed that nearly half the people affected by the changes to social benefits now favored them. "The law and its principles have fully justified themselves and enabled us to improve the social welfare of our citizens," he said.

But top members of the United Russia party, which holds a two-thirds majority in the Duma, lashed out at the Cabinet's handling of the public anger over the reforms. "It is a real shame that as usual, the members of the government only noticed the crisis several months later," said Lyubov Sliska, deputy speaker.

The Kremlin-backed reforms replaced benefits such as free public transportation and subsidized medicines with cash payments for 40 million retirees. The public responded with outrage, staging protests across the country that were the largest in Putin's five years in power.

Communists and other opposition groups have demanded the Cabinet's ouster over the reforms, which went into effect Jan. 1, and on Wednesday, Sliska repeated calls for the dismissal of Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov.

Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, the leader of United Russia, backed a resolution that he acknowledged contained "harsh criticism" of the government. The motion won overwhelming support, with 330 deputies in favor and one abstention.

However, Gryzlov said there was no question of any change to ministerial ranks. In addition to Kudrin, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov and Zurabov addressed the Duma on Wednesday to defend their record.

The renewed criticism comes two months after Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's Cabinet faced a vote of no-confidence, during which the United Russia lawmakers sent a humiliating message to the prime minister by boycotting the vote altogether.

Another deputy speaker from United Russia, Oleg Morozov, warned that the government would have the trust of deputies only as long as positive changes were occurring in Russia. "I hope that the president shares the same view," he said.

Amid unprecedented popular outrage at the benefit cuts, United Russia saw its popularity suffer and has sought to distance itself from the measures, which it approved quickly last year. Putin refused to back down on the welfare reform but softened the blow by ordering a hike in pensions and pay for the Army and police. Many regions also have restored free or subsidized transportation for the elderly.