Pensioners From Occupied Donbas Struggle to Get Payments
24 September, 2018

Stanytsia Luhanska is the only town in the Luhansk region with an official entry-exit checkpoint between the occupied part of the region and the government-controlled part of Ukraine. Every day, nearly 11,000 people cross the border from the occupied territory. Most of them are pensioners making regular trips to collect their pension payments from the Ukrainian state.

After waiting two to five hours at the checkpoint, hundreds of people queue up outside of the bank to verify their identity and get their money. Whoever doesn’t reach the front of the line before the bank closes needs to spend the night and wait again the next morning.

Ukrainians from non-government controlled territories can receive their pensions only if they register as internally displaced persons (IDPs). So all these residents of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (or LPR) are breaking Ukrainian law by misrepresenting themselves to the state. But without their pensions, which were lawfully earned in Ukraine before the war, it would be nearly impossible for them to survive at home, now the so-called LPR.

Hromadske traveled to the border town to learn first-hand about the challenges Ukrainian pensioners face. Most people only agreed to talk to us on the condition of confidentiality.

“I’ve earned my pension”

76-year-old Nadiya travels from her home in occupied Luhansk every two months to get her pension and buy medicine. She’d already been enduring the summer heat in line for almost four hours when we spoke to her.

“It’s very difficult for me to live on the rubles [I receive from the occupying authorities],” she says. “I use [my Ukrainian pension] only for medicine, the rest I give to my children. They live in Ukraine, and rent an apartment there. This is the best way I can help them.”

Nadiya travels to Stanytsia Luhanska from the occupied territories every two months to get her pension. She also receives 3000 rubles (about $44) in aid from the self-proclaimed authorities of the so-called LPR. Photo сredit: Ilya Antonets/HROMADSKE

In addition to her Ukrainian pension, she receives what’s known as “material aid” from the self-proclaimed authorities of the so-called LPR – 3000 rubles (about $44) per month.

“We need [our] Ukrainian pensions,” she insists. “We worked for these pensions. I worked for 51 years in higher education. I think I’ve earned my pension, even if it’s not very large.”

Nearly 11,000 people from the self-proclaimed LPR – most of them pensioners – pass through the checkpoint at Stanytsia Luhanska each day. Photo сredit: Ilya Antonets/HROMADSKE

“Will I make it or not?”

We spent the hot summer day in Stanytsia Luhanska, where there were already nearly 600 people waiting in front of Oshchadbank, the state savings bank of Ukraine.

Once a pensioner from the occupied territories has registered as an IDP, they must still regularly verify their identity to prove they are still alive. This must be done in person at Oshchadbank once every 58 days. If the IDP fails to show up in time, their bank account is frozen and pension payments cease.

Hundreds of people wait in line – first, at the checkpoint, then to verify their identity, and then at the ATM. Many don’t manage to do everything before the bank closes at 4 p.m. Photo сredit: Ilya Antonets/HROMADSKE

65-year-old Olha woke up at 4 a.m. to get to the bank in Stanytsia Luhanska. She is number 402 in line. Her pension, plus “material aid” from the occupying authorities are enough to live on for two weeks. She also grows vegetables to get through the month.

“First we waited at the checkpoint, now we’re waiting for identity verification, and then we want to get our money. I’m number 456. You stand here worrying – will I make it or not?” says one resident of the Luhansk region’s occupied territories who refuses to give her name in fear that her pension will be revoked.

The Stanytsia Luhanska regional administration has promised improvements to the entry-exit checkpoint this month, budgeting 15 million hryvnias (nearly $54,000) for repaving roads, replacing barriers, and renovating onsite constructions. In the meantime, according to some people who spoke off-camera, for 200 hryvnias (around $7) you can skip the line.

Olha (left), her sister and her friend woke up at 4 a.m. to get to the bank in Stanytsia Luhanska. She is number 402 in line. Photo сredit: Ilya Antonets/HROMADSKE

The Oshchadbank in Stanytsia Luhanska is only open until 4 p.m. Visiting pensioners often do not manage to verify their identity by the end of the day. So local residents offer a place to spend the night for the price of 100 hryvnias (about $4).

“Occupation should be expensive”

Nataliya (name changed) cannot spend the night in Stanytsia Luhanska. She left her disabled husband, who needs her constant care, at home.

“These are our [pensions], we worked here, for Ukraine. It’s legally ours, why don’t they give it to us? And when they do, they make it so difficult, as if we were the enemy,” she says.   

In May 2014, Iryna left her native Donetsk for Kyiv. However, she had to leave behind her relatives that have poor health. She asked us not to use her real name because she fears for their safety.

Iryna’s relatives cannot receive their pension from Ukraine, since they can’t travel to government-controlled territory. They are also afraid to accept aid from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. So Iryna alone supports them.

“I think occupation should be expensive,” Iryna says. “When I say, ‘Just take that cursed pension from the terrorists if the [Ukrainian] state has abandoned you,’ they say, ‘Would you also take one from Hitler?’”

Managing Pensions in the Donbas

According to the Stanytsia Luhanska Regional Pension Fund Administration, pension payments to 200 pensioners were stopped in July because they had not verified their identities in over two months. Renewing payments can take time because of bureaucracy.

As of July 1, there were 1.1 million pensioners registered in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, not including separatist-controlled territories, Ukraine’s State Pension Fund says.

In July pension payments to 200 pensioners were stopped by the Stanytsia Luhanska Regional Pension Fund Administration, since the pensioners had not verified their identities in over two months. Photo сredit: Ilya Antonets/HROMADSKE

According to Social Policy Minister Andriy Reva, nearly 570,000 IDPs receive pensions in Ukraine. However, Donbas SOS coordinator Olga Gvozdyova believes this number should be double, as 1.1 million pensioners from the non-government controlled territories applied to have their pensions reinstated in early 2014. Members of the NGO believe that all the other pensions have been revoked.

However, neither the Ministry of Social Policy nor the Pension Fund replied to our query about how many pensioners in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions at present have had their pensions frozen and for what reasons.

/By Dmytro Palchykov

/Translated by Larissa Babij