The State Duma, after long and grueling battles with the government and the opposition, has adopted in its final reading a law to replace the many benefits surviving from Soviet days with cash compensations. The social and political scene the morning after is, if anything, instructive.
Liberal economists are in general pleased, as they believe that the country could not advance and modernise its market with the benefits in their old form. The opposition is in mourning: in its view the decision is not only unjust for millions of elderly people, but also breaches the country's fundamental law, since the present Russian constitution is not purely liberal, it also undertakes to tackle social issues affecting the population.
It is too soon to say finally who won and who lost. On the one hand, the law is yet to come into effect (it will do so in 2005) to demonstrate its strengths and weaknesses. Secondly, upbeat liberals in the cabinet have yet to show the country how competently they can command the advantages they have gained. If they cannot do this, they will be blamed for failing. For failing grotesquely.
Thirdly and finally, benefit recipients, with compensation payments received and real money in their pockets, will see in practice if the government, a Duma dominated by United Russia, or the president have helped them out, or if the authorities have fooled them.
It is already possible to assume that the response will be mixed. A rural pensioner from the backwoods, who has never saw the metro or trolleybus in his life, and uses only the bus sporadically to get to a district centre, will be pleased to get real and disposable cash instead of, in his view, mythical travel benefits. A Moscow pensioner, on the contrary, who cannot conceive life without city transport, and recalling his free travel, will most likely shed a tear or two after counting up the sum allocated to him by the state in compensation. A source of comfort is that the Moscow government has already promised to make up the shortfall. And such paradoxes abound in the benefits topic.
It remains unclear what losses have been sustained and gains made by the parties that fought the benefits battle. United Russia's ratings have obviously been suffered due to the unpopular law, but even this may be challenged. For a start, according to all public opinion polls, its ratings are falling along with every other Russian party, and this means that the loss is not so great. As Valery Fyodorov, director-general of the All-Union Centre for Public Opinion (VTsIOM), figuratively noted, Vladimir Putin conducted a political demobilisation in the country following the presidential election, so all political forces are now in decline.
Besides, the most formidable opponent - the Russian Communist Party - is now in deep crisis and disarray. As for the right-wing liberal parties, the SPS and Yabloko, their ratings have long been zero. This is without even mentioning that they, who vehemently criticised Putin for creating a president-subordinated parliament, have found themselves, if one stops to think about it, in the most preposterous situation. When they were in the Duma, parliament did not adopt unpopular but essential laws. Without them it does. Needing a majority of 226, the unpopular document was backed by 309 deputies. A legitimate question arises: what is better for the Russian economy: a formally right-wing liberal SPS and Yabloko or a formally centrist United Russia and Putin? Incidentally, talk that the president's ratings have taken a nosedive is not entirely accurate. We know that everything depends on the way the question is put. In June - the height of debates on benefits- the president's performance, according to VTsIOM findings, was approved by 75% of the population.
Obviously, the new law means sacrifices for many Russians. Some will get off lightly with just frayed nerves, but others, despite the many cushioning amendments, are likely to suffer financially.
RIA Novosti political commentator Pyotr Romanov