Why Are Ukrainian Pensioners Dying in Donbas?
8 February, 2019

Since the start of 2019, nine pensioners have died going through the checkpoints between Ukraine’s controlled and uncontrolled territories. The latest reported case was about a man born in 1951 who, according to the Right to Protection NGO, died at Stanytsia Luhanska, Luhansk region’s only official entry-exit checkpoint, on January 28. The exact cause of his death is still unknown.

There are 1.2 million Ukrainian pensioners living in the non-government controlled territories of Ukraine, according to the country’s Ministry of Social Policy. Most of them received Ukrainian pensions at least once in their life since the start of occupation. But only 700,000 do it on a monthly basis.

Forced to Break the Law

While the remaining 500,000 could have personal reasons for not claiming their payments, the difficulty of this process can play a big part in the decision. Pensioners living in occupied Donbas can only receive their pensions if they register as internally displaced persons (IDPs). Technically this is breaking Ukrainian law, but for them it’s the only way to survive in their homes now the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.

Pensioners crossing the Stanytsia Luhanska entry-exit checkpoint in Luhansk region, Ukraine on October 9, 2016. Photo credit: EPA

The Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Social Policy Mykola Shambir told Hromadske that the government is aware of the pensioners misrepresenting themselves to the state.

“The [Ukrainian] law says that a pension can only be received if you have an address in Ukraine,” he said. “We consciously turn a blind eye to this status, this registration [procedure] is basically a mechanism to receive your pension.”

But the efforts which the elderly have to undertake to receive their payments don’t end there. To receive the pensions, they have to travel to government-controlled territories via checkpoints, where the queues can last up to 8 hours. And then comes the time-consuming procedure of confirming their identities at the state-owned Oshchadbank.

According to Right to Protection, who monitor the checkpoints between government and separatist-controlled parts of Ukraine, over 90% of the pensioners crossing the checkpoints live in non-government controlled Ukraine.

Big Price to Pay

Among those pensioners who recently died going through a checkpoint in Donbas was Liudmila Kakhidze. According to her daughter, famous Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze, on January 16, Liudmila was on her way to the government-controlled part of Donbas to “check in,” meaning to go through the physical identification procedure. She left her hometown of Zhdanivka (in Donetsk region) at 4 o’clock in the morning and was still en route to the Mayorske checkpoint five hours later, despite the distance between the two places being only 40 km.

“This man who introduced himself as a representative of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic called from my mother’s phone - he didn’t say his name,” Kakhidze told Hromadske. “He said that [my mother] had fallen ill on the bus, that they had tried giving her first aid before calling an ambulance. The ambulance car arrived but her heart had already stopped beating.”

Stanytsia Luhanska entry-exit checkpoint in Luhansk region, Ukraine on March 25, 2015. Photo credit: EPA

Kakhidze also said that she was told by a funeral service driver that some pensioners who can afford it pay their drivers to queue-jump at the checkpoint. Hromadske learned the same thing during an earlier trip to Stanytsia Luhanska. According to some pensioners, this queue-jumping service costs around 200 hryvnias or $7.

Off-camera, residents of the non-government controlled territories also told Hromadske that there are registration services offered by locals in government-controlled areas to those who want to obtain the status of IDP to receive their pension. Prices vary between 50–100 hryvnias ($2–3.50) per month.

But, of course, with the minimum pension in Ukraine currently standing at 1,497 hryvnia ($55), this is a big price to pay.

“The poor ones like my mother have to stand [in the queues],” Kakhidze said.

A Step Forward?

Shambir argues that although it seems like the checks are tedious these days, it’s a big leap forward from the situation over a year ago, when the government physically checked the residence addresses declared by the pensioners.

Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Social Policy Mykola Shambir speaks to Hromadske on January 25. Photo credit: HROMADSKE

“Last year, we launched the simplified physical verification procedure at Oshchadbank and this reduced the bureaucratic mechanisms, reduced the amount of checks – they’re practically cancelled now,” he said. “We’re looking for [new] mechanisms for physical identification and checkpoint crossing, as well as implementing the different options in automatizing exchange between different structures.”

However, Right to Protection coordinator Daryna Tolkach argues that not enough change has been made pointing at the Arkan system that’s still used by Ukraine to track pensioners movement in and outside of the occupied Donbas. Arkan was initially created for the use of the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine. It allows for a quick way to combine the most recent information from the border service with the database of registered IDPs. According to Tolkach, if a person registered as IDP has spent two months outside of government-controlled area, he or she can be stripped of their pension.

“Using [this system] for checking people’s movement within uncontrolled territories is not under [Ukraine’s] legal framework,” she insists.

Kakhidze is also skeptical about the government’s efforts to help Ukrainian pensioners in the Donbas.

“The pensioners living in Ukraine’s uncontrolled territories are de-facto abandoned by the Ukrainian state,” she said. “They don’t have the right to live [in uncontrolled territories] without saying ‘I’m an IDP.’ So they all have to lie there. So did my mom.”

Ways to Improve

Right to Protection’s Tolkach thinks that the need for the IDP document for those who wish to receive pensions needs to be scrapped. She also believes that there should be a unified procedure for pensioners across Ukraine, regardless of where they live in relation to the demarcation line.

Right to Protection NGO coordinator Daryna Tolkach speaks to Hromadske on January 25. Photo credit: HROMADSKE

There were previously talks of the International Committee of the Red Cross delivering Ukrainian pensions to residents of occupied Donbas but, according to Shambir, the Ukrainian government has not received any official proposals yet.

/Text by Maria Romanenko

/Interviews by Konstantin Reutski and Vasyl Pekhno