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Ukraine: Kyiv Cuts Benefits For Chernobyl Victims

Kyiv, 12 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Last month a presidential decree cut the tax paid by workers for aid to victims of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and their families from ten to five percent. The parliament approved the measure, but there are clear signs that the victims are increasingly dissatisfied with the level of government help they receive.

Benefits for the 3.2 million inhabitants of the four contaminated zones around Chernobyl and 950,000 children designated victims of the explosion, include free medicine and an annual medical check-up, free breakfasts for school children, and larger student stipends. All victims receive small monthly allowances for food and vitamin supplements.

More than a decade after the catastrophe, 7 percent of all Ukrainians receive Chernobyl-related benefits, according to the Emergencies Ministry. But those benefits have been steadily eroded over the years because of the country's poverty.

For years, complaints have been coming to the Emergencies Ministry about abuse of the Chernobyl Fund. Last year, in an attempt to weed out false claimants the ministry required that all workers involved in cleaning up after the catastrophe were re-registered.

In June this year, finance ministry auditors announced that 10 billion Hryvni ($5 billion) from the fund, intended for health services, food and medicines, had been misappropriated, much of it by the administration of the exclusion zone around the power station and by companies contracted to build housing for Chernobyl workers.

Research commissioned by the Emergencies Ministry has revealed that parents of Chernobyl victims consider their children to be in poorer health than a couple of years ago and say they are receiving less and less government aid.

The survey, carried out by the National Institute of Sociology in May, questioned 450 parents of Chernobyl children, both evacuees and present inhabitants of contaminated areas around the power station.

Compared to similar data collected in 1995, parents' perceptions are that their children's health has deteriorated. Although inhabitants of the zone are now less prone to describe their children as chronically ill, almost half (47 percent) said their offspring suffer from frequent infections and illnesses, compared to a little more than a third (38 percent) three years ago. Only 3 percent of families living in contaminated areas judged their children completely healthy; among evacuees that number was 13 percent.

Research on government aid for Chernobyl victims was last carried out in 1997. Since then, an overwhelming majority of inhabitants of the zone think help and support from the government has decreased.

Last year, 2 percent of respondents in the contaminated zone said they were not being supplied with vitamin supplements and groceries from ecologically clean areas. This year, that rose to 48 percent, while the percentage of evacuees who reported not receiving adequate compensation for food products rose tenfold to 31 percent.

Maria Derbeneva, an evacuee with two teenage children now living in Kyiv, told RFE/RL that all her benefits had been cut or restricted in the last few years. "They're trying to find every possible way not to give us our benefits," she said. "I just can't compare the benefits we have now with those we had five years ago, they are so far apart."

Chernobyl victims hold the government responsible for the deterioration of their benefits; they have also lost faith in officialdom in general. Among the parents of children with chronic illnesses, not a single respondent said the health authorities were doing their job well.

The research was commissioned by the ministry in order to establish exactly how victims felt about their situation and the government's treatment of them, said Volodymyr Pinchuk, head of the ministry's scientific department.

"Years have passed, but Chernobyl victims don't see that anything has changed in the government's attitude toward them," he said. "We need objectively to research the situation today, and find out what the priorities are for those living in contaminated areas. We will try to keep the results of the research in mind while conducting future work, of course within the limits permitted by the country's financial situation," he added.

The cut in the Chernobyl tax followed pressure from the International Monetary Fund, which argues that Ukraine's tax rates are too high and encourage evasion. The government appears to have decided that cutting benefits for victims of Chernobyl is an easy way to comply with the IMF's recommendations.