Thousands marched though the streets of the Russian capital, Moscow, on Sunday, November 30, bringing back memories of the huge rallies that shook the city in the winter of 2011-2012.
This time nobody was calling for ‘Russia without Putin’ - at least not yet, writes Professor Stefan Hedlund. The protest was over cutbacks in medical services, closure of hospitals and the dismissal of thousands of doctors. Those who took to the streets were medical staff together with their patients.
The protests come after details of health reforms were leaked in October prompting a massive public reaction.
Critics say the controversial reforms are aimed at saving money in a system that is permeated by corruption and in which patients face long queues and low survival rates. The reforms which, in Moscow alone, include sacking some 7,000 medics and closing 26 of the city’s 65 hospitals will not improve care, they say.
Some 4,000 protested in Moscow. Police put numbers at 1,500. Similar rallies were held at the same time in Russia's second largest city of Saint Petersburg and the Volga city of Nizhny Novgorod.
The Moscow rally was the second such protest by medics in the capital this month. It is unusual for state employees to protest against the authorities. Now the government has been warned again. And it will not be taken lightly.
Medical doctors have been a high priority for Russian President Vladimir Putin. His ambition, on his return to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012, was to build political support via lavish social spending. He promised doctors’ wages would double by 2018 from the present 45,000 rubles (US$969) a month. That promise was made together with pledges to double pensions and to raise the wages of teachers.
The promise was viewed as reckless - despite oil prices rising or at least to be destined to hold at US$110 a barrel. Today, matters look very differently.
The price of oil has fallen sharply to well below US$70 per barrel. The federal budget is partially protected by the fact that the ruble is in free fall, meaning that every dollar earned will buy the government more rubles. But the flipside is that dollar-denominated debt will become more expensive to service, putting massive demands on the budget to bail out banks and companies.
Once accumulated reserves have been exhausted, which may be within a year, severe budget cuts will be necessary and Mr Putin’s reckless promises will have to be broken.
The reason why the current protest is not yet an anti-regime protest is that what prompted the demonstration was a generally accepted need to reform the health care system. Russia has far too many doctors, and health care provision is in dire need of increased efficiency. An important part of the reform is a laudable proposal to increase the number of local clinics to take the pressure off the major hospitals.
But bureaucrats saw a golden opportunity to make money on the side. They have been accused of closing hospitals which are in prime locations, where the land may be sold to private investors at major profit.
But the message of the marching medical workers goes beyond anger over endemic corruption. It provides an early warning of what may come - when real cuts are needed right across the economy. As expressed on a protester’s banner, the public will increasingly demand that the Kremlin should, ‘Save money on war, not doctors’.