For Russians, growing worries over 'eternal poverty'


Saint Petersburg (AFP)

At a Saint Petersburg cafe, a singer performs Soviet-era tunes for 50 pensioners enjoying a mid-day meal.

In the basement of a central apartment block, the cafe offers free food for the elderly -- a group particularly hard hit by the economic strains causing growing anger in Russia.

Despite icy pavements making crossing the northern city difficult, the Dobrodomik -- or "good little house" -- is full.

Inside, pensioners are served hearty stews and given the chance to have a chat, or even a dance. They are overwhelmingly women.

"Prices are rising every day. So this cafe is a very, very good idea," 72-year-old Rimma Antsiferova told AFP.

She receives a monthly pension of 10,000 rubles ($150/135 euros). After paying her local taxes and buying medicine, Antsiferova is left with only $45 to live on.

"And recently, the price of transport went up," she said.

Businesswoman Alexandra Syniak and her husband Yevgeny Gershevich opened Dobrodomik this winter to "thank the elderly".

In the evening, it turns into a regular restaurant but between noon and mid-afternoon, pensioners from all corners of Saint Petersburg come to eat a warm meal.

- 'Never been as hard' -

Following an oil boom in the 2000s, Russians have seen their purchasing power steadily decline over the last five years.

The trend is showing no sign of slowing, despite Russia recovering from a 2015 recession brought on by a fall in oil prices and Western sanctions over Moscow's actions in Ukraine.

When he was re-elected for a fourth presidential term last year, President Vladimir Putin promised to halve Russia's poverty rate.

But soon afterwards, his government raised value-added tax and hiked the retirement age for the first time since the 1930s -- a hugely unpopular move.

"It's never been as hard for people as it is now," said Igor Nikolayev, director of the FBK Strategic Analysis Institute in Moscow.

And this anxiety is starting to show in opinion polls.

According to a January survey by the independent Levada centre, 61 percent of Russians "feel shame for the eternal poverty and insecurity" of their country, compared to 56 percent in 2015.

Putin's personal approval rating has taken a hit, too.

In January, Levada found his approval rating at 64 percent -- the lowest since 2014.

- Inflation, VAT up -

Levada's director Lev Gudkov told AFP that different surveys show support for Putin, who has been in power since 1999, falling by a third.

"Discontent has spread from urban centres to smaller, industrial towns where the working population is most affected by falling incomes," Gudkov said.

"This is linked to the refusal of the state to provide social guarantees, and funds being used for geopolitical projects rather than going on the people," he said.

Gudkov said real incomes in Russia have fallen by "around 13 percent" since 2014.

"It is painful for people who live on the average salary," he told AFP. The average monthly wage is 42,600 rubles ($650/570 euros).

In his state of the nation address last month, Putin announced social aid exceeding 1.3 billion euros, promising an improvement in people's lives "within this year".

"Poverty can crush a person," he said.

But in the short term, Russians are seeing food prices rise fast -- partly caused by the VAT increase from 18 to 20 percent that came into effect on January 1.

Inflation rose to five percent last month and even reached 7.3 percent for fruit and vegetables.

At the Dobrodomik cafe, former engineer Galina Mikhalina said she sometimes "hesitates to buy bread".

The 73-year-old's pension was recently raised by a 1,000 rubles to 12,000 rubles per month.

"But prices are rising twice as fast," she said.

Mikhalina said she does not "feel comfortable eating charity meals" but has little choice.

She points to fellow retirees in the cafe as a sign of how poverty is more widespread than it might appear.

"Look around -- these people do not look like outcasts."