The upper house of Russia's parliament has approved a controversial new law that would effectively end a range of Soviet-era benefits for the elderly, disabled and World War II veterans. The legislation has provoked street protests, and triggered a fall in President Vladimir Putin's popularity rating.
Russia's Federation Council passed the law almost unanimously Sunday, but it is a move that critics say will cause more hardship to millions of Russian already living in poverty.
The law is to replace tangible benefits, such as free public transportation and subsidized electricity, with monthly cash payments of between $25 and $120. Those most affected will be the disabled, elderly pensioners and war veterans.
The vote was expected, despite the fact that most members of the Federation Council are also regional governors who oppose the law, because it is they who must now make the cash payments for transport, health and other benefits that date to Soviet times.
The Kremlin argues that to streamline the government budget in the post-Soviet era, it is more effective to replace such subsidies with cash.
But the change has run into strong public opposition, mostly due to fears that inflation eventually will render the payments worthless.
Opposition was so strong that demonstrations have taken place in recent weeks, led by the Communists and small liberal parties.
But such protests fell on deaf ears, given that the Kremlin has a virtual lock on power after effectively dividing the Communists and eliminating liberal parties from the lower house of parliament, the Duma, in elections last December.
The pro-Kremlin United Russia party that dominates the Duma rushed the proposal through last week, with virtually no debate. Many deputies complained they were asked to vote with no time to even read the law, which contains more than 1,000 amendments.
Masha Lipman, a noted political commentator in Russia, says the effects of the new law are difficult to predict, but that it only increases the bureaucratic nature of Russia under Mr. Putin.
"What's happening in Russia today is really shameless I think, because, while benefits are taken away from the public with the sort of compensation that at least seems dubious to people, the benefits for bureaucrats are only increased," she said.
Ms. Lipman says the law's quick approval also reflects the degree of control the Kremlin wields in Russia today, coming not long after the right to hold national referendums and even demonstrations was tightened by other laws.