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Putin assails handling of new pension law

He seeks to contain the damage as many protest

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MOSCOW — Facing an unusual wave of public protest, President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday pointedly criticized the government he appointed for mishandling a new law replacing social benefits for retirees with cash payments that have been derided as meager.

Meeting with his government ministers, Putin called for raising and accelerating an increase in pensions scheduled to take effect in April. He defended the new law, but said that the changes in social benefits, which his government pushed through parliament over opposition protests last year, should not punish Russia's poorest citizens.

In his first extended response to demonstrations by pensioners that have occurred across Russia in the last week, Putin sought to contain the potential political damage from an issue largely of his own making by shifting the blame from the Kremlin to other government and regional leaders.

"Both government and regional heads did not carry out the task we had talked about," he said in remarks broadcast on state television. "I mean that when decisions like that are made, the position of the people who are in need of the state aid should not worsen."

The new law, which abolished benefits like free transportation and subsidies for housing, prescription drugs and other basic services for the country's 32 million pensioners, veterans and invalids, has provoked the largest anti-government demonstrations of Putin's presidency. For the first time, some called for his resignation.

Across Russia thousands have protested the change, saying that the government's cash supplements, which start at $7 a month, do not begin to compensate for the lost benefits. After large demonstrations in St. Petersburg last weekend, new protests unfolded Monday in the Far East, in Siberia and in several other cities where anti-government protests have been almost unheard of.

The depth of public anger over the new law and the specter of elderly protesters have rattled Putin's government and United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party that dominates parliament. The elderly, including veterans of World War II, have long been considered a base of Putin's political support. Two opposition parties, the Communists and Motherland, called for the resignation of Prime Minister Mikhail Y. Fradkov, a Putin appointee. Russian newspapers speculated about when Fradkov and his ministers might be dismissed.

The state railroad monopoly said it would continue discount fares for pensioners and veterans.