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Russia: Chornobyl 'Liquidators' Win Small Victory To Preserve Pensions

The thousands of men and women who took part in the cleanup of the Chornobyl nuclear accident in 1986, and who continue to suffer from serious health problems from exposure to radiation, have a won a small battle to maintain their disability awards. But RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports the "liquidators," as they are known locally, feel they are up against a 14-year-long policy to ignore, diminish, and forget their plight.

Moscow, 31 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- It took marches, hunger strikes and threats of self-immolation, but the thousands of people who helped clean up the Chornobyl nuclear accident have won a small battle to preserve disability payments.

A controversial new bill that would have cut many disability pensions by as much as 60 percent has been rejected in a third reading by the Russian State Duma. The lower house has now sent the bill back for amendments.

And today, the minister of social affairs and labor, Aleksandr Pochinok, hinted that a compromise may be in the works to safeguard the benefits of some of those whose pensions would decrease under the new bill. More than 50,000 people currently receive disability payments because of their work at Chornobyl.

On the morning of April 26, 1986, managers at the Ukraine-based plant ignored safety procedures while carrying out a test of reactor number four. The test unleashed a chain reaction, sending the reactor out of control and igniting explosions and fire. Clean-up teams were quickly flown into the contaminated zone, and thousands of rescue workers were exposed to elevated radiation levels.

Prospects that their disability payments would be cut provoked 150 of these "liquidators" last week to stage a protest march from Tula to Moscow, a distance of 200 kilometers. Two days before, another liquidator, Pyotr Lyubchenko, died in Rostov after staging a hunger strike.

According to Pochinok and Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko, the new bill would iron out existing inequalities whereby some invalids receive as little as 300 rubles a month while others get tens of thousands of rubles. Under the bill, disability pensions would no longer be based on a person's former salary, but would be paid according to the disability. The bill sets a minimum benefit of 1,000 rubles ($35) and a maximum benefit of 5,000 rubles ($180) a month.

Pochinok defends the bill, saying many liquidators are getting large sums of money illegally:

"Excuse me, but when invalids of the third degree come to see me in Mercedes cars and with mobile phones to defend their rights to get 80,000 rubles a month...that's already beyond good and evil!"

But Vyacheslav Grishin, the head of the Chornobyl Union, which protects the rights of veteran liquidators, says unfairly large pensions are the exception and that many ordinary invalids would suffer under the new bill.

Natalya Lipatkina is an expert on the issue with the Duma committee. She helped draft the bill. She tells RFE/RL that most invalids currently receive less than 1,000 rubles a month and would benefit from the new legislation. But she admits the bill would decrease benefits for some liquidators:

"More than half the invalids receive less than a thousand [rubles] a month. In principle, the government's proposition increases the payment for over 60 percent [of these people]. But the whole problem is that the payments of 20 percent of the invalids will decrease. Those are people who get more than 5,000, 10,000 [rubles] a month."

Chornobyl liquidator Pyotr Kalamarchuk told Russian television (ORT) over the weekend that following his service at the crippled reactor he underwent three operations, including a bone marrow transplant. He says the treatment saved his life but left him too weak to work. He now gets 6,300 rubles a month but would see that drop to 2,500 rubles under the new law.

Sergei Valentyanov, the vice president of the Chornobyl Union, says the first teams of soldiers and firefighters shoveled sand onto the burning reactor. He says crews went into the danger zone without questioning orders. He likens their bravery to Soviet soldiers in 1941 facing the Nazis.

Although Pochinok now appears willing to compromise on preserving benefits for some of the clean-up teams, officials for the liquidators say they are wary of authorities' promises.

Grishin of the Chornobyl Union say that after his meeting with Pochinok yesterday, he hopes the minister is ready for a dialogue. He says dialogue is necessary because the largely pro-government Duma is not likely to pass any favorable amendments to the bill without the government's approval.

He says the weakness of Russia's civil society has made it possible for authorities to downplay Chornobyl's consequences:

"The whole Chornobyl epic [has]...led to the violation of citizens' rights in different ways by reducing the extent of the officially contaminated territory...[and] by [cutting] the social benefits for the Chornobyl catastrophe victims. Why is this? It happens because the events have not been given their full importance from a legal and social point of view."

Valentyanov says the government's social ministers are up against resistance from within their own camp. He points out that the atomic energy lobby has a strong interest in minimizing the consequences of Chornobyl.

Earlier this month, the Atomic Energy Ministry, which is trying to launch a large-scale nuclear energy program in Russia, called the Chornobyl accident a "political, not an environmental" problem.