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Russians left behind by boom protest at price rises

Written by: Staff
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MOSCOW, Apr 8 (Reuters) Thousands of Russians left behind by their country's economic boom came out onto the streets today to protest at what they said was the widening gulf between rich and poor.

Demonstrations were held in cities from the Pacific coast to Moscow over a phasing out of Soviet-era subsidies that has driven up household bills to a level where pensioners and the poor say they can no longer afford to pay them.

Russia is enjoying a boom fuelled by high prices for its main export, oil. Millions of families have seen their incomes rise but some sections of the population say they are worse off than before.

''(We are protesting about) the increase in household bills and the fact that pensions have not kept pace,'' said Ivan Vassilevich, who was among about 3,000 demonstrators near Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre.

''The people who have the oil could give a small amount to those that don't,'' he said.

Most of the protesters were pensioners. Many of them waved red flags decorated with the Communist hammer and sickle.

They were watched by several thousand police in riot gear.

There were no serious clashes.

Protesters also gathered in Vladivostok in Russia's Far East, in the Siberian city of Kransoyarsk, Yekaterinburg in the Urals and dozens of other towns and cities.

The housing reform has phased out subsidies for rent and utilities such as gas and electricity. For the first time it has made it possible for the authorities to evict tenants in municipal housing who fail to pay their rent.

People on fixed and low incomes have also been hit by high inflation. Consumer prices rose by 5 percent in the first quarter of 2006 -- over half the government's target for the whole year.

Opinion polls show that support among Russian voters for President Vladimir Putin remains solid. Saturday's protests were unlikely to alarm the Kremlin.

The government says the subsidies for household bills are inefficient. It says the reform will free up money that can be targeted more effectively at the poorest groups.

REUTERS CH PM1656

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