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Victims Of Kazakhstan's Soviet-Era Nuclear Tests Feel 'Abandoned' By Government

Vladimir Sulim worked at the Semipalatinsk test site from the age of 17.

SEMEI, Kazakhstan -- Hundreds of thousands of people in northeastern Kazakhstan are still suffering the consequences from 40 years of nuclear-weapons tests that were conducted near their homes during the Soviet era.

But a majority of Kazakhstan’s nuclear-test victims say they don’t receive adequate financial compensation and social benefits from the government.

“The only compensation I received was early retirement, with a minimum pension, and a one-off aid payment of about $600,” says 70-year-old Vladimir Sulim, who worked at the Semipalatinsk test site, also known as "The Polygon," since he was 17 years old.

Sulim suffers from multiple health problems that his doctors say are related to the radiation he was exposed to for decades at his job about 150 kilometers west of the town of Semei in northeastern Kazakhstan.

At least a half-million people lived in areas close to the site, where more than 450 nuclear tests were conducted by Soviet authorities between 1949 and 1989.

Local people were not told about the catastrophic implications that radiation from open-air nuclear tests would have upon their health. Nor were they protected.

The nuclear site was shut down in 1991, two years after the last test was carried out there.

But people who live nearby are still getting sick to this day. The impact upon their health and the environment is expected to last for many years.

Kazakhstan’s government says three provinces -- Eastern Kazakhstan, Qaraghandy, and Pavlodar -- have been affected by the tests.

The number of miscarriages and stillbirths in the area, as well as children born with physical or neurological defects, is much higher than in the rest of the country.

Radiation Exposure

According to Kazakhstan’s Health Ministry, cancer rates in the region also continue to be significantly higher than in other areas.

Aleksei Konovalov, head of the Semei Independent Social Center, says ill health is a major problem among the population -- not just for people who lived in the region during the Soviet-era tests, but also for younger residents.

Most residents think their health problems are either linked to their own exposure to radiation, or to the exposure of their parents.

“More than 40 percent of the population suffers from various chronic illnesses,” Konovalov says, adding that the full impact of the nuclear tests remains unknown.

The former Soviet nuclear weapons testing site at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.
The former Soviet nuclear weapons testing site at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan’s government provides benefits for those affected -- including financial aid, higher pensions, additional paid holiday leave, and free or subsidized health care.

Other benefits include discounts on public transport and subsidized medical treatment at sanatoriums.

But local residents say those benefits are mostly provided to people who have obtained an official certificate proving their status as a radiation victim.

Such certificates are only issued after meticulous paperwork that includes the submission of documents confirming an applicant’s residency in the affected provinces between 1949 and 1990.

Konovalov says about 55 percent of Kazakhstan’s nuclear-test victims do not have the required certificate and feel “abandoned” by the government.

“About 63 percent don’t receive additional paid leave, 92 percent don’t have access to subsidized health care, 94 percent don’t receive discounted medicines for their health conditions, and 96 percent can’t get subsidized treatment in sanatoriums,” Konovalov said, citing recent studies by his center and other experts.

Struggling With Benefits

Those eligible for benefits say the financial assistance they receive is meager -- often amounting to only about $40 a year per person.

In most cases, the monthly disability allowance for those who are unable to work does not even cover the cost of their medicine.

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In September, the Kazakh government said 2,924 compensation payments had been awarded “to the victims of the nuclear tests” since the start of 2019.

It said more than 5,700 people had received certificates during the first eight months of 2019 that confirm their status as a nuclear-test victim.

Kazakhstan's government has divided affected areas to several so-called risk zones that range from “high risk” to “minimum risk.”

The size of the one-off payment a victim receives is based upon the risk zone where they have lived.

But victims say compensation awards should be based on the health problems that each individual faces, not on the location of their home.

During a visit to Eastern Kazakhstan Province in April, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev promised that those affected by the Soviet-era nuclear tests and lingering radiation will receive the compensation they deserve.

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“By the end of the year, we will clarify the extent of the damage caused to the local population and determine the amounts of social assistance,” Toqaev said. “I instruct the government to work out concrete proposals.”

For the victims like Sulim, who has been suffering from ill-health for decades, those measures can’t come soon enough.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Khadisha Akaeva in Semei, Kazakhstan