MOSCOW -- Demonstrations across Russia posed a major challenge to President Vladimir Putin yesterday, as authorities bowed to the demands of protesting retirees by restoring some state benefits, such as free public transportation and subsidized medicine.
As many as 10,000 protesters blocked major avenues in downtown St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city. The rally in Putin's home city seemed to be the biggest protest so far.
In Moscow suburbs, hundreds of retirees have repeatedly blocked highways, paralyzing traffic for hours. About 1,000 senior citizens gathered again under red flags yesterday in Khimki, on the capital's northwestern fringe, calling for the dismissal of the Moscow governor, Boris Gromov.
"Putin's policy is that of a genocide," said one protester, Mikhail Kononov. "The government is waiting for all of us to die."
Police were deployed along a nearby highway leading to the capital's main international airport to prevent protesters from blocking it as they did several days ago. The protesters did not try to block traffic yesterday.
The protests began after a law, which took effect Jan. 1, created cash payments to replace benefits for retirees, people with disabilities, war veterans, and others. The extent of the protests are unusual in Russia, where Putin changes have been accepted with little dissent.
Protesters said the cash payments were far smaller than the costs of transportation and other services they had been intended to replace, and several regions were unable to provide the payments on time. They also lamented that pharmacies were short on subsidized medications.
A Gromov spokesman, Andrei Barkovsky, said on radio yesterday that free public transportation would be restored for retirees in the Moscow region.
Facing the protests, more and more regional officials ordered the continuation, at least temporarily, of some benefits -- mostly free transportation.
The Kremlin-sponsored reform has eroded Putin's popularity, and some analysts predicted that he might remove some Cabinet members to deflect criticism.
Lyubov Sliska, a senior member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, which dominates the parliament, fueled such speculation Friday, saying she did not rule out the possibility of Putin dismissing the entire government.
In Moscow, legislators in the State Duma, the parliament's lower house, sought to ease tensions last week by promising to consider raising pensions.
Many observers said protests were likely to intensify further when people receive heating and other utility bills for January. The bills will increase significantly as government subsidies end.