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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Benefits Protests Are Planned in 50 Cities

A loose coalition of Communists, trade unions, human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations have said they will hold nationwide protests on Thursday and Saturday against the government's controversial benefits reform.

Rallies against the monetization of benefits will be held in a total of 50 cities, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk, Astrakhan, Tomsk, Perm and Barnaul, a city in southern Siberia, where about 1,000 pensioners rallied Monday, said Oleg Shein, a State Duma deputy with the nationalist Rodina party.

The majority of protests will be held Saturday, but in some regions rallies are planned for Thursday in front of regional government and United Russia party offices, he said.

Shein also leads a small trade union confederation affiliated with the Council of Public Solidarity, a group of NGOs and independent trade unions formed last year to oppose the reform.

United Russia deputies voted unanimously for the controversial benefits bill last summer, helping it sail through the chamber.

Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said Monday that the faction would oppose a no-confidence vote in Mikhail Fradkov's government due to be held Wednesday.

Last month, tens of thousands of angry pensioners took to the streets in largely spontaneous protests after losing their entitlement to a range of benefits, including free rides on public transportation, in return for meager cash compensation.

In most regions, rattled local authorities have restored free or subsidized transportation for pensioners, or have pledged to do so, while the federal government has rushed to raise regional subsidies and pensions by a total of $4 billion to smooth the impact of the reform.

The organizers of the nationwide protests will urge the Kremlin to hold a nationwide referendum to freeze implementation of the law, which took effect Jan. 1, until the law can be amended to protect benefit recipients' living standards.

While in most cities NGOs and political parties will team up in joint rallies, in Moscow there will be two separate demonstrations, Shein said. "I can't rule out that some political demands, like calls for the president and Cabinet to resign, will be heard at the rallies," he said.

A number of human rights groups are joining the rallies to protest what they say are the government's anti-social policies.

"Human rights groups were the first to point out the negative consequences of the law when it was debated in the Duma last summer," said Lev Ponomaryov, head of the For Human Rights group.

"The transportation issue has been sorted out, but the law envisages new cuts for the most vulnerable groups in society," Ponomaryov said, referring to the fact that the law will deprive millions of pensioners of subsidies for medicines and utility bills.

Shein said that in Moscow the Council of Public Solidarity hoped to attract about 4,000 people to its rally Saturday.

Whether this week's nationwide protests will be bigger than last month's is not known, but Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has expressed concern over the number of protesters who will take to streets on Thursday and Saturday.

"If last month's protests were unprecedented, on Feb. 10 and Feb. 12 they want to organize something even more unprecedented. Some preventive measures should be taken," Kudrin said Monday, Interfax reported. He did not elaborate.

Also on Thursday, transportation unions will protest the hike in gasoline prices in front of the White House government headquarters, Transportation Minister Igor Levitin said.

The Council of Public Solidarity's rally will be held Saturday at 4 p.m. on Pushkin Square, while the Communists will gather their supporters four hours earlier at Kaluzhskaya Ploshchad.