Russia’s president looks to eliminate social inequality – or does he?


Publish date: April 23, 2008

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG – The Russian governments is preparing a social assistance legislation package for citizens impacted by the activities of the notorious Mayak Chemical Combine, near the Southern Urals city of Chelyabinsk.

The legislation, according to its authors, will equalise government assistance benefits for those in the Mayak area with those received by victims of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. But environmentalists familiar with the preliminary text of the legislation are already calling the government’s initiatives “pseudo efforts.”

As the result of an accident at the Mayak Chemical Combine in 1957, 20 million curies of radioactivity were jettisoned into the atmosphere. The affected territory measures some 23 thousand square kilometers, and thousands of people suffered from the fallout.

Russia’s law on social assistance to this group came about only in 1998. Today, the surviving members of this group receive 287 roubles (about $10) a month for food and another 143 roubles (about $5) for health care in government assistance. But even receiving these parsimonious sums often involves going to court and jumping through other bureaucratic hoops of fire.

Last week, the question of paying state assistance to Mayak survivors was brought up for the first time at the level of the Kremlin government. Tatyana Golikova, Russia’s health minister, informed President Vladimir Putin that legislation was being prepared during an April 8th meeting. According to Golikova, the new law “will not imply substantial financial means.”

Putin called the existing conditions for Mayak survivors “an evident social injustice” and gave orders to speed up work on fixing things.

“It is truly an injustice, and the creation of a new law would be the right step, at least in theory,” Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the environmental group Ecodefence, told Bellona Web.

“However we have low hopes that the problem will be solved to any degree. The realisation of the law will, in any case, depend on local authorities, and those are, bear in mind, the Mayak Chemical Combine,” he said.

“I think that again the workers of the nuclear industry will come out on top, but that the condition of other victims that live on the contaminated territory and never worked at the Combine will, unfortunately, hardly change.”

A specific law for each accident
The very task of the legislative project formulated by Golikova in her conversation with Putin puzzles human rights advocates. According to Golikova, the rights of Chernobyl victims and Mayak victims must be equal.

“The fact is that today, these categories of citizens – there are not many of them – have radiation injuries to the same degree and receive fewer benefits than those who were subjected to the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant,” she said.

Nadezhda Kutepova, a Bellona correspondent and head of the environmental group Planet of Hope – which is based in Mayak’s closed hometown of Ozersk – said: “Declaring that the law will equalize the rights of Chernobyl survivors and Mayak survivors means displaying a total ignorance of the legislation on this subject.”

She said that: “The law on victims of Mayak, which has existed since 1998 is a reference – it avails itself of the norms of the Chernobyl law, in which there are described concrete measures of government support for people. In essence, the two documents completely coincide.”

Nonetheless, Kutepova said that a separate law on Mayak is definitely necessary to substantiate existing norms and by the same token defend them from the arbitrary interpretation by the courts.

“Moreover, there are circumstances where people have been subjected to the results of both accidents, but they still have rights only to collect benefits on one. It is therefore better that a separate law be worked out for Mayak victims,” said Kutepova.

Bellona St. Petersburg legal advisor Olga Krivonos said that the Chernobyl law encompasses victims of all nuclear accidents that have taken place on Russia’s territory and that this is ideologically wrongheaded.

“It’s necessary that the state on a legislative level recognise that there have been other catastrophes besides Chernobyl,” she said.

The history of the Mayak bill
The bill forwarded by the Kremlin was developed three years ago by deputies of the Chelyabinsk Regional Legislative Assembly.

The bill was sent three times to the State Duma for review, and was refused three times. The last time it was sent back with a negative reply, federal lawmakers said that the realisation of the programme demanded 80 million ($2.8 million) but that those who developed the bill did not say where the money was supposed to come from.

Now the presidential administration has taken up the bill. A working group to flesh it out has been appointed, and it includes the virtual gamut of Russia’s industry, financial, public health, employment, meteorological, emergency management and medical officialdom.

Represented in the working group are: the Ministry for Health and Social Development; the Emergency Services Ministry; the Ministry of Finance; Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom; the Russian Agency for Health and Consumer Rights; the Federal Medical and Biological Agency; the Federal Work and Employment Service; the Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring Agency; the Russian Academy of Medical Science and the Chelyabisnk Regional Administration.

The first meeting of the working group was on April 17th and a final text of the bill is expected to be ready by November 1st.

Problems remain
In Slivyak’s opinion, the new legislative project is “part of the PR campaign that is undertaken for the West in order to show that the Russian nuclear industry has become socially responsible and that they are open to cooperation.”

Slivyak said that this tap-dance for the West is nothing less than a fight for Rosatom’s survival.

“Without foreign contracts, the large scale plans for building new nuclear power plants in Russia are no more than rosy dreams, so therefore it is of critical importance for Rosatom to look pretty,” he said.

Human rights activists familiar with the preliminary text of the Mayak victims’ bill have already said the initiative does little more than fully preserve the shortcomings of existing legislation. The legislation does not take into account several categories of victims. In order to stand up for their rights to their benefits, citizens must again go to court.

According to information obtained from the Ministry of Health by Bellona Web, the new bill will include the “additional” norms: indexing the six of two monthly benefits payments, the payment of compensation of injuries to family members who cannot work, and a measure of social support to first and second generation children suffering from illnesses resulting from the Mayak accident.

To Kutepova, the additions “look fine, but will never really work.” Such are the grim conclusions that suggest themselves after an acquaintance with legal procedure.

Two October court cases in the Chelyabinsk Region illustrate this. In the cases, descendents of the Mayak accident’s liquidators tried to stand up for their right to benefits. The current law on the social defence of citizens suffering from the Mayak fallout guarantees aid to the first generation and second generations of children (born after the accident) “suffering from illnesses as a result of radiation exposure to their parents.”

The court however ruled against paying the benefits saying that by the civil code children are considered to be citizens below 18 years of age. Thus, grown children of Mayak victims are not entitled to benefits. Such decisions in such cases are already a firm fixture of legal procedure in the Chelyabinsk Region.

The new legislation under consideration maintains the same interpretation of the word “children.” This means that after their 18th birthdays, descendents of the accident’s liquidators will be left without state support. And, as Health Minister Golikova rightly noted, substantial funding is not required for implementing the law – all the more so as the accident occurred in 1957 and one will hardly find any minor children of the accident’s victims.

“When there are 10 liquidators left alive, they will all probably get cottages,” Kutepova said wryly.

The same applies to widows of liquidators, many of whom even now cannot attain their rightful benefits because their husbands died before the law on Mayak victims went into force, and so did not fill out special liquidator identification cards. The new bill changes nothing for these people, and many are unable to go the courts to fight for their benefits because of their advanced age.

As previously, the bill contains nothing on the children of mothers who were pregnant with them when their mothers were sent to take part in the liquidation. While the 1998 law was being created, the Mayak Chemical Combine altogether hid from the legislature that pregnant women participated in cleaning up the nuclear disaster.

The first anyone heard of this was in 2006, when one Sofiya Zubareva, a former liquidator, filed a suit in court so that her daughter, with whom she was pregnant during the liquidation, be counted as a victim as well. The local and regional courts turned her down, and the case is currently under consideration by Russia’s Constitutional Court, which has yet to come to a decision.

Apparently, they are in no hurry: Zubareva and her daughter have since died. According to human rights groups, some 2,000 pregnant women took part in the liquidation of the 1957 accident.

The new bill also makes no reference to those who moved from the area to escape the contaminated territory after the 1950s. These limitations primarily concern residents of the villages of Muslyumovo, Tatarskaya, and Muskayevo. These areas for whatever reason were not resettled in 1957, and today some 7,000 people live on these contaminated lands. Cancer rates among these groups are three to four times higher than normal. Data from the Russian Agency for Health and Consumer Rights show that water pipes in the area contain alpha radiation that exceed norms by two to three times.

Environmentalists and human rights activists alike say that a massive medical experiment on long-term low-level radiation exposure is being conducted in the residents of the contaminated villages. It is for this reason that bureaucrats try by any means necessary to preserve the villages, say environmentalists. And a government benefit payment – penurious though they are – serves another purpose of keeping people in these radioactive locales.

Another resettlement of people from contaminated territories initiated by Rosatom in 2006 ended in scandal. The residents of Muslyumovo announced that they must be moved to a new village located two kilometers away along the opposite bank of the Techa River. Recently, the regional administration publicly announced that the content of radioactive radon on the site where the new village was being built exceeded standard norms by several times. At an April 20th gathering, Muslyumovo residents decided against swallowing this poisoned bait, and said they were staying put.

Another injustice contained in the language of the new bill is the requirement that people chose benefits on the foundation of one event, even if the applicant is a victim of several accidents.

“This is unacceptable from the point of view of the Civil Code,” said Planet of Hope’s Kutepova. “How is this justified? If a citizen has suffered a number of industrial accidents, he is due compensation for each incident.”

Mayak is not the defendant

All compensation to Mayak victims is paid from the government budget. Getting compensation out of the direct culprit – the Mayak Chemical Combine – is a complicated matter. In 2001, Chelyabinsk Region resident Denis Nazhmutdinov succeeded in winning 50 roubles ($1,700) in court for moral damages. The son of a liquidator who was pregnant with him while working, Nazhmutdinov was born without feet and portions of his hands. In order to tie these maladies to radiation, a battery of genetic tests were required of his father, mother and grandparents, all of whom had to give samples of blood for testing.

Another similar case did not end as well. A court refused to call Mayak the rightful defendant in the case of Timur Islametdinov, whose severe blood disease is a result of radiation poisoning. The court declared that the rightful defendant in the case was the government, which should pay Islametdinov 442 roubles ($16) in compensation.

“Mayak has never been interested in the condition of these people,” said Slivyak.

By contrast, the United States and Europe require enterprises responsible for accidents to pay damages. An international convention was signed in Vienna in 1963 that stipulated civil responsibility for nuclear damages and established a minimum of $5 million in insurance that a nuclear facility must carry.

This convention entered into force in Russia on August 13th, 2005. Nevertheless, mechanisms for adhering to the convention have yet to be worked out. The bill for the corresponding law, entered into the State Duma in 1996, is still sitting in cold storage.

Fractional indexing
The miserly benefits for victims of radiation accidents are explained in part by the fact that, while the law was being created, lawmakers forgot to index, or readjust, the benefits in accordance with changing economic conditions.

The first group to ring the alarm on this particular injustice were Chernobyl survivors, who sent an official inquiry to Constitutional Court, which ruled that, indeed, the benefits must be indexed, and that the beneficiaries must be paid compensation for the difference they had missed out on under the un-indexed scheme. Thousands of Chernobyl victims took their cases to court, and in 2007, the wave of lawsuits reached the Chelyabinsk Region.

“The first reaction in the region’s courts was disarray. Then came the signal that they had to bestow the money,” said Kutepova.

The state arrears to each liquidator came to about 65,000 roubles ($2,300) per person, and the first 500 litigants received their money with no problem. The rest weren’t so lucky.

“Apparently, the Kremlin did the math and calculated that in the Chelyabinsk Region there are 20,000 liquidators, multiplied by 65,000 roubles. As a result, the (Chelyabinsk) Regional Court gathered all the local courts and recommended refusing all comers any compensation,” Kutepova said.

In Ozersk, about 1,000 people received negative results from the courts despite the fact that their conditions were identical.

“An unimaginable situation thus arose,” said Kutepova. “ The liquidators who won in court receive 1381 roubles ($49) a month, and the benefits for the rest are 359 roubles ($12) a month. This is a violation of the Russian Constitution’s article 19, which states that all are equal before the law and the courts.”

The majority of those liquidators who lost their suits are appealing them in the regional court. Should they not get satisfaction there, they will have a chance to appeal in the European Court of Human Rights – which receives 70 percent of its business from Russia.

“If there is a large number of complaints, the European court will be forced to draw Russia’s attention to it through the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, without waiting for the review (of individual cases) in essence,” said Kutepova.

It is as yet unknown what the sum of the benefits will be and what sort of indexation will apply, however it is clear that the accrued situation of inequality will be hard to eliminate. And it is unfathomable that it “will not imply substantial financial means” as Health Minister Golikova insists.