Russia passes controversial reform bill


Russia’s upper house of parliament approved a controversial social reform bill on Sunday that would end an array of Soviet-era benefits, including free transportation and medicine, for some of Russia’s most impoverished and vulnerable people. The measure has sparked noisy protests in Moscow and around this vast nation, and police had cordoned off the Federation Council building Sunday but the large protests that marked other key votes on the measure were absent.

About six young protesters — some wearing bright red T-shirts that read U.S.S.R. — slipped inside the police cordon and then refused to budge; police physically lifted a few of them up and carried them into waiting police vans.

The 179-seat Federation Council, which usually rubber-stamps legislation for the Kremlin, approved the government-backed legislation by a vote of 156-5 with one abstention. The measure had already won approval Thursday in the lower house of parliament, which is dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, and now goes to President Vladimir Putin for his signature.

The bill will replace many of the long-standing Soviet-era benefits with cash payments. An estimated 30 million people — Russia’s elderly, disabled and World War II veterans — will be affected. Svetlana Orlova, deputy chairwoman of the Federation Council, told the chamber that the bill is necessary because it will help streamline the nation’s lumbering bureaucracy and now US$171 billion “will go to concrete people.”

The government says the move will be a boon to many and will make aid more accurately targeted — arguing, for example, that public transportation is scarce in rural areas. But recipients, who include survivors of the Leningrad siege of World War II, are outraged at what they see as abandonment by the state they served.

A small group of protesters on Sunday carried placards reading, “Hands off veterans’ benefits!” Another group of elderly Russians in favor of the measure also gathered outside the Federation Council building, carrying signs of support.