Russian lawmakers grill ministers over unpopular welfare reforms

Russian lawmakers grilled ministers on Wednesday over implementation of deeply unpopular welfare reforms but opponents of the benefit cuts did not appear to have any chance of forcing heads to roll.

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's Cabinet survived an opposition-backed no-confidence motion two months ago but promised to report back to parliament in April.

Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov were all to address the State Duma lower house of parliament and answer questions from legislators.

The Kremlin-backed reforms, which replaced Soviet-era benefits such as free public transport and subsidized medicines with cash payments, early this year triggered massive street protests across the country - the largest in President Vladimir Putin's five years in power.

Communists and other opposition groups have demanded the Cabinet's ouster over the reforms, which went into effect Jan. 1.

But parliament speaker Boris Gryzlov, leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party which holds a two-thirds majority, said there was no question of any change to ministerial ranks despite "harsh criticism" of the government in a resolution due to be voted on Wednesday.

"The resolution contains no proposals on the resignation of the government or any ministers," Gryzlov said in remarks broadcast on state television.

At the no-confidence motion in February, the Kremlin-controlled majority sent a humiliating message to the prime minister by boycotting the vote altogether.

Amid unprecedented popular outrage at the benefit cuts, which affected 40 million retirees among others, United Russia saw its popularity suffer and has sought to distance itself from the measures which it approved quickly last year.

President Putin refused to back down on the welfare reform, but softened the blow by ordering a hike in pensions and pay for the army and police - who lost the right to free transport. Many regions also have restored free or subsidized transport for the elderly.

HENRY MEYER, Associated Press Writer

On the photo: Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov

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