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Putin Tries to Soothe an Irate Military

Apparently concerned by growing discontent in the military over his social reforms, President Vladimir Putin ordered the Cabinet on Monday to quickly raise military wages.

When Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin told the president at the meeting that the government will give servicemen a 10 percent salary increase in September, a stern-faced Putin called the move "too slow and insufficient."

"Considering the hike in tariffs, this increase should be a minimum of 20 percent and take place much earlier," Putin said in televised remarks, referring to the fact that servicemen lost their right to free public transportation as of Jan. 1, under a law that replaced Soviet-era benefits with meager cash payments.

The social reform, which was overwhelmingly supported by the United Russia-dominated State Duma, has prompted widespread protests, mostly by pensioners and war veterans. The protesters call the cash compensations inadequate and are demanding that the benefits be returned.

Brewing discontent in the armed forces, however, could pose a more serious threat to the Kremlin.

More than 80 percent of servicemen oppose the reform, Interfax reported late last week, citing a source in the Federation Council.

The number of servicemen satisfied with their well-being has plummeted from an already low 20 percent in 2003 to just 5 percent this month, according to a survey conducted by the Defense Ministry. Servicemen said they were most irritated by low wages, the cancellation of free public transportation and the replacement of food rations with meager compensation.

Defense Ministry officials declined to comment immediately about the numbers Monday.

Just after the benefits were canceled, commanders of military garrisons began complaining to their superiors that they could not afford to transport servicemen to their posts of duty and that the servicemen themselves were refusing to pay fares out of their own pockets, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported Monday, citing an unidentified senior military official. The complaints rose through the chain of command until they recently reached the Defense Ministry offices in Moscow, the newspaper said.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov defended the new law last week, saying it was good but had been poorly implemented.

The authorities, including the military, had more than enough time to prepare for a smooth transition, said Vitaly Tsymbal, a defense analyst with the Institute for Economics in Transition. "It has been clear since the law on benefits was approved last summer that the Defense Ministry had to come up with a way to provide servicemen with transportation passes and had to allocate money for this in its budget," Tsymbal said. "Talking about the problem now as if it came up unexpectedly -- like a tsunami -- is just gross impudence."

Some Russian media are speculating that military officers are resigning in frustration.

Even if that's the case, the longer-term impact of the benefits reform will be even more painful for the military, said Vladimir Dudnik, a military specialist with Generals for Democracy and Humanism, a nongovernmental organization. "In the past two to three years, young Russian men, seeing the relatively secure well-being of the military, began entering military colleges, and there was even a bit of competition to win admission," he said. "Now, many of them will start quitting, leaving the Army without young educated officers and making military reforms all but impossible."

He noted that free military benefits have always brimmed with symbolism, highlighting the prestige of military service in public eyes.

As part of the reform, servicemen's salaries were raised by 770 rubles ($27) as of Jan. 1, but their pay remains less than their counterparts in some other former Soviet republics -- despite the fact that the average national salary is higher than in those countries. For example, a Russian lieutenant who does not participate in combat takes home about $160 per month, while a lieutenant in Kazakhstan or Belarus gets about $220, Vedomosti reported last week.

Also Monday, Kudrin reported to Putin that the Cabinet over the weekend had urgently signed agreements with 67 of the country's 89 regions to make sure that all pensioners receive subsidized travel passes. Other regions will sign similar agreements in a matter of days, he said. In many regions, the amount of cash payments for travel did not cover the cost of a monthly pass.

Large protests continued Monday in a number of cities, including Stavropol in the south and Novosibirsk in western Siberia.

Five members of the nationalist Rodina faction, including its leader, Dmitry Rogozin, continued a hunger strike over the law in Rogozin's office in the Duma building. The deputies started the strike Friday.

(The Moscow Times 25.i.05)

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