The docile Russian acquiescence in President Vladimir Putin's increasingly autocratic regime was shattered over the weekend in a most unusual way.
In cities across Russia -- including Moscow, the capital, and St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown -- thousands of war veterans, the elderly and the disabled, chanting and beating pots and pans, blocked intersections and highways.
They were protesting the replacement of free and subsidized medicine, public transportation and rent with a $10 stipend that the pensioners said was woefully inadequate.
The Kremlin was clearly caught by surprise. It might have been a well-intentioned effort to reform the costly and inefficient welfare system inherited from the Soviet Union, but the Kremlin's advance work was lacking and there seemed no effort to sell the reform to the retirees, let alone seek their input.
Passing the buck
Putin was quick to blame the angry reaction on his subordinates and regional and local officials. He quickly announced that a scheduled raise in the basic state pension would be doubled and its effective date moved up a month.
According to the Associated Press, some pensioners, heretofore among his biggest supporters, have called for Putin to step down. That's unlikely, but as a surrogate the normally subdued political opposition may try to recall Putin's prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov.
Coming after his missteps on the election in Ukraine, the uproar over the benefit cuts is a worrisome indication that, as he grows more autocratic, Putin is also growing more isolated. He may be surrounded by old KGB yes-men who assure him that the people love their leader and are nothing but happy under his rule. Thanks to his suppression of independent media, there's no one to tell Putin differently.
Scripps Howard News Service