Chernobyl’s Ongoing Victims

Real measures to whiten their tarnished reputation seem of no interest to Ukraine’s leaders. Presumably it’s easier, given their grip on all branches of power, to combine a little commissioned gloss through apparently successful, “negotiations” with repressive measures against those refusing to buckle under.

The protests throughout the country by former Chernobyl clean-up workers received wide coverage, as did the increasingly inept measures to stop them.  The men were, after all, only defending their rights under the law to full pension payments, and asking for enforcement of court orders confirming these rights.

The protests over the Pension Fund’s reduction in their pensions were most galling in Donetsk, the ruling party’s homeland.  First the court banned the Chernobyl clean-up workers’ protests. This was in response to an application from the city authorities who cited a police report claiming that “according to information received on the Internet the next explosion will be in Donetsk” and therefore asking for a ban on protests “pending an improvement in the operational situation in the city”.  The protesters refused to go away, so on Sunday evening, 27 November police and Emergencies Ministry men stormed the protesters’ tents, this resulting in the death of retired miner Gennady Konoplyov. 

There are limits to how tarnished a reputation can be, especially with 14 December, the Day honouring those who took part in the clean-up approaching. The pressure to “resolve” the situation was enormous. 

There were reports of memoranda being signed with the Chernobyl Union of Ukraine, agreements being reached.  In Donetsk the protesters appear to have agreed to a one off payment of 1 million UAH which the Administration is saying is not the money owed for November and December, but “material assistance to those most needing help”. 

There are many needing help, and all are entitled to enforcement of the law. The payment can therefore only serve to divide the Chernobyl clean-up workers’ movement.  Some of the men were against piecemeal offers and wanted to continue the protests. They considered the conciliatory moves by the Chernobyl Union of Ukraine and its leader, Yury Andreyev, to be a sell-out.

Two of those “dissidents” spent Friday and Saturday (16-17 December) under police interrogation in Kharkiv and by Saturday evening had been presented with preposterous criminal charges.

Volodymyr Proskurin, leader of the Kharkiv movement, Petro Prokopenko and other former Chernobyl clean-up workers were delegates to a crucial conference of the Chernobyl Union of Ukraine on Friday and Saturday. They were planning to voice their opposition to the re-election of Yury Andreyev whom they see as selling out the Chernobyl clean-up workers’ movement.

On Thursday the men received summonses to the police for questioning as witnesses. Most were set for Friday, Prokopenko’s for Monday. Proskurin’s request for his questioning to be postponed for a couple of days was rejected.

At 6 a.m. on Friday morning, police quite unwarrantedly turned up at Proskurin’s home and took him by force to the police station. Prokopenko reached the conference though the Berkut Special Forces unit on guard at first tried to prevent him getting in.  Police then arrived and positively detained him, taking him back to Kharkiv. 

No documentary evidence was provided yet both men were charged with forging their papers entitling them to pensions as Chernobyl clean-up workers.  No evidence, incidentally, can be provided since the men did indeed take part in the clean-up operation, with lasting damage to their health. It is no accident that both men were taken by ambulance from the investigators on Saturday afternoon and are in hospital. Following protests and considerable attention, the police announced on 19 December that they were withdrawing charges.  It is to be hoped for good, but little would appear guaranteed.

Meanwhile Yury Andreyev has been re-elected.  The conference took place in the presence of the Deputy Prime Minister, Andrey Klyuev and a number of his fellow Regions Party colleagues.  And with a large contingent of Berkut strongmen and other police officers who refused to allow up to 300 delegates into the conference hall.  Mr Andreyev is reported on the government website as having waxed lyrical about cooperation with the government. He also apparently said that some Chornobyl clean-up workers “have fallen victim to political manipulation”, and are being used by political forces.

The stage has thus been set, with pro-government decorations and all efforts afoot to intimidate and stifle dissident voices. A year ago the government resorted to similar tactics over the Tax Code protesters. 9 people spent considerable periods in detention on highly questionable charges and are still facing criminal prosecution.

In this case, the cynicism is especially disturbing.  Men used by the Soviet regime back in 1986 are now being used as pawns in a new regime’s games.  Used, together with the police and judiciary to openly demonstrate what those who buck the system can expect.

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