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Temporarily displaced pensions: how pensioners in Ukraine’s occupied territories survive against all odds

The Ukrainian state still lacks a mechanism for paying pensions to citizens who live in occupied terroritories. RU

Ганна Соколова
24 July 2018
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An elderly woman at a checkpoint in Mayorsk. Photo CC BY-ND 2.0: European Union / ECHO / Oleksandr Ratushniak / Flickr. Some rights are reserved.Nadezhda leaves her house at 4.30am, an hour and a half before the end of the night-time curfew. The buses are not yet running, so she takes a taxi at the bus stop. The drive from her neighbourhood in Horlivka, a city in the self-styled “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) to the nearest border crossing (around four kilometres) costs 50 roubles. The driver hands part of the fare over to the separatist “militia men” for breaking the curfew conditions.

The “DNR” checkpoint opens at 6.30am, but pensioners start queuing when it’s still dark. There’s no proper toilet, no drinking water and no shelter against rain and sun. Nadezhda has to stand for five hours before passing through the checkpoint and getting on a bus to the “grey zone”, for which she waits another half hour. The bus journey costs eight roubles, but taxi drivers charge 250 for the same distance, five kilometres or so. Once at the “grey zone”, she transfers to another bus that will take her to the demarcation line at the Mayorsk Entry/Exit Control Point (EECP) (another five kilometres). She pays for this part of the journey in Ukrainian currency – five hryvnia.

“A young woman came up to me at the control point with a clipboard, wanting to know what I was and wasn’t happy with,” Nadezhda tells me. “I said I was fine with everything: there’s a clean toilet, water, tea. And in the winter they even gave me some biscuits.”

At the Ukrainian checkpoint, border formalities take under an hour. You need to show your passport and an entry permit valid for a year. Nadezhda boards yet another bus beside the Mayorsk EECP: this will take her to the city of Bakhmut, in Ukraine proper. There, at the savings bank, she goes through an identification process, affirms that she still lives in Ukraine as a displaced person and receives her pension. Then she goes off to spend the night at the railway station.

There are about 30 pensioners sitting in the station waiting room, probably all from the “LNR” and “DNR”. Nadezhda lays a sheet of cardboard on her metal seat, to warm it a little, eats the food she has brought with her and waits for the commuter train that acts as a budget hotel: you can sleep there, on wooden benches, between 10pm and 4.30 am. The engine driver takes 20 hryvnia for the service – it’s five times cheaper than a hostel.

At 6am, Nadezhda goes off to the market. She buys what’s cheaper here than at home, and starts making her way back to Horlivka. In the bus taking her to the demarcation line she tries to guess how long it will take this time. Nadezhda, like many other residents of the “DNR” and “LNR”, makes this journey each month to avoid losing her Ukrainian pension.

Temporarily displaced pensions

Nadezhda retired after a working life of 40 years. She used to go to her local bank to collect her monthly pension of around 1,500 hryvnia and pay her utilities bills (about 300 hryvnia), and would buy food with the rest. In April 2014, Horlivka was occupied by forces from the self-styled “DNR”, supported by Russia and pro-Russian locals. The city’s Pension Fund office, banks and post office all closed down.

“My son found an announcement on the internet about transferring your pension,” Nadezhda tells me. “I phoned the number and a man told me to take my pension file from the Pension Fund office in Horlivka and collect the necessary bits of paper. He then drove me to the Pension Fund office in Kramatorsk, another city in the Ukraine-controlled part of the Donetsk region, a member of staff came out, placed the papers on the car bonnet and I signed them, and that was it – my pension was transferred to another city, for which I paid the man 250 hryvnia.”

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The queue at the block-post in the town of Luganskaya. 2017 year. Photo: Tatyana Goncharuk.Later, in a branch of Delta Bank in Kramatorsk, Nadezhda received a new pension card, which she passed on to her daughter.

In October 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a law “On the implementation of the Rights and Liberties of Displaced Persons”, as well as Decrees No.509 (“On the Reporting of Displaced Persons”) and No.637 (“On the Payment of Social Benefits to Internally Displaced Persons”). Now, to receive her pension, Nadezhda had to acquire a displaced persons certificate and get a stamp on it, showing that she was registered on Ukrainian government-controlled territory.

“My son found another announcement on the internet, about getting this registration for 450 hryvnia. They took me to the Work and Social Security office in Kramatorsk and signed me up as a Displaced Person and then to the Migration Service to register me as a resident in a building that I’d never seen.”

In April 2018 the government changed the regulations and pension back payments would now be paid out “on an individual basis”

In spring 2015, the National Bank of Ukraine declared Delta Bank insolvent and in the autumn it closed it down. Nadezhda had to go to Kramatorsk to transfer her pension to Privatbank. The paperwork took two days and she had to spend the night at the station. She then gave her new pension card to a man she found through an advert – for a small percentage (she couldn’t remember what) he would go to Kramatorsk each month and withdraw her pension money for her.

In December 2015, however, the Ukrainian Parliament amended the law on the “Rights and Liberties of Displaced Persons”, abolishing the need for registration with Ukraine’s Migration Service. The stamp that Nadezhda had paid a man 450 hryvnia for was no longer obligatory.

Getting a pension close to home: a bureaucratic quest

In February 2016, displaced persons – both those who had actually moved to government-controlled areas and those who travelled there once a month to collect their pensions – suffered a serious loss of status and corresponding financial benefits. Ukraine’s Security and State Border Services began to suspect that some displaced persons weren’t, in fact, what they claimed and put them on a list that was distributed to local Work and Social Security and Pension Fund offices. Nadezhda, despite staying in Horlivka, managed to evade the list and continue receiving her pension.

To resolve the situation, in June 2016, the Ukrainian Cabinet passed Decree No.365 “Some Issues on Paying Social Benefits to Internally Displaced Persons”, with the intention of checking people’s actual place of residence. The document required Ukrainian social services employees to leave a notification of this new regulation at the displaced person’s place of residence, visit them at an appointed time and, should they not be at home, stop their payments. This practice lasted until July 2018, when a Kyiv court ruled that it should be ended — it contradicted Ukraine's Constitution and discriminated against pensioners living in occupied territories. 

From July 2016, another Cabinet decision obliged displaced persons to collect their pensions and social benefits only through the state savings bank. Nadezhda went to Kramatorsk, updated her paperwork and received a new pension card. She was sure she would lose her benefits in the residence checks.

“I sorted myself out a small local pension in Horlivka, 2,900 roubles a month (the average monthly pension in Russia is around 14,000 roubles – ed.), started selling vegetables from my plot at the market and somehow managed to survive, and I forgot all about my Ukrainian pension. Then in January, a friend was planning a trip to Kramatorsk, and I gave her my pension card to take with her. ‘If there’s no money on the card, just throw it out’, I told her”. Next thing, she phones me and says, ‘Nadya, you’ve got 13,000 hryvnia!’ They were paying me a pension all that time. I can’t say I was that overjoyed about the cash: I knew about the queues I’d need to stand in to collect it.”

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Checkpoint Mayorsk. According to UNHCR in the fall of 2017, about 7,000 people pass through this border crossing every day. Photo CC BY-ND 2.0: European Union / ECHO / Oleksandr Ratushniak / Flickr. Some rights are reserved.What Nadezhda calls a local pension is in fact a benefit paid by Russia through the self-styled “republics”. The pensioners, however, mostly see it as a bonus to their Ukrainian pension.

Then in September 2017, Ukrainian ministers passed “Decree No.689”, removed the need for pensioners to have their place of residence checked if they went through an ID check at the Savings Bank.

“At first I would travel to Kramatorsk, but then they explained that I could go through an ID check in any town or city, and I started going to Bakhmut,” Nadezhda tells me. “The ID thing happens like this: every two months I get an SMS with an appointment; I go to the Savings Bank at Bakhmut, open my ID document and hold it up to the window along with my pension card and the bank woman photographs it. I actually spend one night a month in Bakhmut – I haven’t seen anything that says I have to, but I do it just in case.”

If Nadezhda’s money is stopped, it will take several months to reinstate it, and she won’t get the missed payments back. The Pension Fund used to repay money they owed for a period of up to three years, but in April 2018 the government changed the regulations and pension back payments would now be paid out “on an individual basis”. This, however, doesn’t yet exist and no one knows when it will be implemented.

Punishing the unfortunate

In August 2014, there were about 1.3m pensioners living in the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions. But according to the UN High Commission for Refugees, in 2017 only 30% of them had been given IDP status and pension rights.

“The ‘Donbas SOS’ organisation has a hotline that takes frequent calls about pension problems – from displaced persons, people who have refused to accept IDP status and those who live in the ‘LNR’ and ‘DNR’,” says Olga Gvozdeva, who coordinates DonbasSOS’s legal department. “There were most calls in 2015-2016, from people who had lost their pensions after the creation of the Security Service lists. At that point we were even getting calls from Work and Social Security Ministry people, who had no idea what to do in the situation.”

Abolishing the link between pensions and IDP status is a way of showing the residents of the self-styled “republics” that the rule of law functions in the Ukrainian-controlled area, Olga tells me. “There’s a lot of prejudice among the public against the people who live in the ‘LNR’ and ‘DNR’”, says Irina Loyuk, an expert with the Radnyk Programme (IDP Advisor programme). “These people, and especially the pensioners among them, are obviously susceptible to negative propaganda. But they are people just like everyone else and have the same rights as all Ukrainian citizens, and that includes pension rights. We need to engage with these people if we want to return the self-styled ‘republics’ to Ukraine.”

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The village of Lugansk. The queue at the checkpoint at the transition to the “LNR”, 2017 year. Photo: Tatyana Goncharuk. Meanwhile, in July 2017, a draft bill, No.6692, “On Amendments to Certain Laws of Ukraine Regarding the Right of Specific Categories of Citizen to Receive a Pension”, was registered in the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. This bill would allow the payment of pensions to residents of non-government controlled areas without a displaced person certificate.

There are various organisations engaged in trying to resolve the problems of IDPs and residents of the “LNR” and “DNR”, including the IDP Advisor programme, the Representation of the Norwegian Council for Refugees in Ukraine (NRC) and the UN Refugee Agency, as well as voluntary sector organisations such as the Influence Group and Donbas SOS. These organisations brought the bill to the attention of Ukraine’s Committee on Social Policy, Employment and Pensions. The draft text was discussed and amended by a committee working group and recommended for examination by the Ministry for Social Policy and the Pension Fund.

It was then discussed by the Verkhovna Rada’s Chief Research Department, and a decision was taken to restore the link between pension and IDP status, but also to establish that people belonging to terrorist organisations should have their access to pensions blocked.

“People convicted of a crime still get their pensions, even if they are in prison”

Irina Loyuk, however, disagrees. “Penalties for criminal offences – and membership of terrorist organisations is included in this category – are covered by the Criminal Code, and there is nothing there about a loss of pension rights. People convicted of a crime still get their pensions, even if they are in prison.”

Bill No.6692 specifies that residents of the self-styled “republics” should apply to any Pension Fund office to receive their pension, and that they can’t be refused one on the grounds of not being a displaced person. The mechanism for the payment of pensions will be included in the appropriate regulations once the law is passed. According to Loyuk, the draft law has now gone through all the requisite committees and is on the parliamentary agenda, but debate on it has been adjourned for the time being.

Three billboards beside a station

To draw public attention to the pension issue affecting residents of the self-styled “republics”, in April 2018 people working for the IDP Advisor programme decided to hold an awareness campaign, based on the recent film, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

“We wanted to put up three billboards with these messages: ‘How is life with you, ladies and gentlemen of the Verkhovna Rada?’, ‘Pensioners in the occupied territories have lived for four years without pensions’ and ‘Draft Law No.6692 hasn’t been passed yet’,” says Valeriya Vershinina, who heads the IDP Advisor programme. “Only one company, which we found through an intermediary, could install three consecutive billboards outside Kyiv’s main railway station. We sent him the texts for reproduction and paid the bill. Later he said that the Kyiv authorities had banned the billboards, as they breached the law on advertising, but we were told afterwards that it was the company that stopped the installation because our texts were political rather than social in character.”

The company also refused to return the payment for the abortive transaction, and the IDP Advisor programme has taken them to court for breach of contract.

It isn’t just civil rights campaigners and the odd parliamentarian who support the abolition of the link between pension rights and IDP status. The Ministry for the Temporarily Occupied Territories and Displaced Persons is also behind it, citing Ukrainian law, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Special Representative of the Council of Europe’s General Secretary for Ukraine and the Recommendations of the Ministerial Committee of the Council of Europe to its member states regarding IDPs.

“According to Article 46 of Ukraine’s Constitution, citizens have the right to social welfare, including the right to decent treatment in their old age,” a ministry press officer tells me. “The right of Ukrainian citizens to pensions is also enshrined in the country’s law ‘on Universal State Pension Provision’. In other words, any possibility that you might not be able to exercise your right to a pension is unacceptable.”

An exemplary infringement of rights

While the pension issue is still unresolved at legislative level, displaced persons and residents of the separatist-controlled areas are continuing to fight the withdrawal of pension payments through the courts at both national and European level.

In May 2018, Ukraine’s Supreme Court examined an exemplary case against the management of Ukraine’s Pension Fund. It was brought by a displaced person whose pension was cut off because he had supposedly returned to an occupied area. The court upheld his claim, creating a precedent for other displaced persons who had faced the same problem: in such cases courts must follow decisions by the Supreme Court, taken in an exemplary case.

Article 49 of Ukraine’s Legal Code, “On Universal Pension Provision”, regulates the mechanism for terminating a pension. “Its summary is exhaustive and closed: there cannot be any other way of doing it,” Igor Sosonsky, a lawyer with the Kharkiv Human Rights Group tells me. “The Pension Fund is terminating payments illegally when it cites decrees passed by the Cabinet of Ministers, which have less legal authority than parliamentary legislation or the Constitution.”

In its decision on the case against the Pension Fund, the Supreme Court also made reference to the UN Human Rights Convention, the EU Social Charter, the UNCHR’s “Guiding principles on internal displacement” and decisions taken by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The ECHR didn’t, however, uphold the final complaint of residents of the occupied territories. Its petitioners claimed that the Ukrainian government had illegally stopped payment of pensions and social benefits to people in the temporarily separatist-held areas. They also claim that they were deprived of access to the courts, since they had been resettled in government-controlled territory.

Igor Sosonsky believes that the ECHR rejected this complaint because the complainants hadn’t exhausted their options within Ukraine, although they could have travelled to a government-controlled area and filed a suit in a Ukrainian court.

“When you have gone through the first three stages – first instance, appeal and cassation – you need to lodge a written complaint to the ECHR on infringements that have taken place at national level within six months of the last verdict,” he says.

Sosonsky also believes that Ukraine is creating barriers for pensioners who have stayed in the occupied territories. “You can’t think of them as criminals: they are hostages to the situation.”

 

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