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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Annals of Putin's Wealthy Russia: The Disabled Starve Themselves

The Moscow Times reports yet more information dispelling the ridiculous notion that Russians are prospering under Dictator Putin:

KISELYOVSK, Kemerovo Region -- In a cramped, two-room apartment here, six people with work-related disabilities on Thursday entered the 60th day of a hunger strike over prescription medicine subsidies and pensions.

"We want the laws to work in this country. We want to be able to go to the pharmacy and get our medicine as the law provides," said Alexander Gartman, the protest organizer and a participant.

"The hunger strike is our last chance. The authorities have turned their backs on us, and our appeals and complaints have fallen on deaf ears. Now we're prepared to go all the way," said Gartman, the head of Regressnik, a regional nongovernmental organization that serves the needs of people disabled on the job.

The emaciated protesters lie on mattresses on the floor of Gartman's apartment. On the 42nd day of the hunger strike, doctors told the protesters that if they continued, their bodies would suffer irreparable damage and they would eventually die. "We had no choice but to start taking in a minimal amount of nourishment from sugar water, juice and herbal tea to stay alive," Gartman said.

Other disabled workers come to the apartment every day to offer their support. Many of them are prevented by health problems from taking part.

"If I were to join the hunger strike, my only act of protest would be to die," said Alexander Uskov, a diabetic, who was visiting the apartment earlier this week.

As Uskov was speaking, Gartman sent home an elderly couple, Nikolai Pulyayev and his wife Valentina, who had also come to show their support. "Nikolai would like to join us, but he has a serious stomach ailment that doesn't allow him to," Gartman said.

At issue in the hunger strike are reductions in disabled workers' benefits that have made it next to impossible for the workers to pay for vital prescription drugs.

In May 2006, the government decided to compensate disabled workers only for Russian medicines. Previously, they had been reimbursed in full for all prescribed medicines. The government issued a list of medicines included in the program and the amount it would pay in compensation.

Doctors often prescribe foreign-made medicines, however, leaving disabled workers to pay the sizeable difference out of their own pockets.

"If the prescribed medicine is imported, payment covers only the cost of the Russian-made equivalent," said Irina Kadetova, director of the regional branch of the state Social Insurance Fund.

Even the prices the government sets on domestic medicines lag well behind actual retail prices.

The protesters have appealed to authorities all the way to Moscow, but so far with no success. After two months without food, they aren't sure they will live to see their concerns addressed.

Over two months, medical personnel have responded to three calls from the apartment, and a number of protesters have been forced to quit because of failing health. Sergei Geiger was hospitalized after 20 days with stomach trouble. Nikolai Kuchmar was also forced to drop out after developing intestinal complications. Geiger and Kuchmar worked for years in a local coal mine.

The other protesters and their supporters have similar stories.

Nikolai Pulyayev worked in a mine for 25 years until he was injured in 1987. He has been fighting ever since to receive the benefits to which he is entitled by law. After 17 years, the government finally classified him as unfit to work, but his benefits are not indexed to inflation. The state pays him 1,700 rubles ($66) per month.

So far, the authorities have done little to respond to the protesters' demands.

Not long ago, a letter arrived from Mikhail Mironov, head of the department that handles citizens' appeals in the administration of President Vladimir Putin. In the letter, Gartman said, Mironov directed Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev to deal with the hunger strikers' demands.

In response, Deputy Governor Yevgeny Baranov told the protesters that none of their demands fell within the purview of the regional government.

Last Friday, the protesters received a second letter from Mironov, in which he renewed his request for Tuleyev to sit down and talk with Gartman and the others. The governor's office has responded with silence.

Such indifference is the best the hunger strikers have received from the authorities.

In the first few days, Kiselyovsk police tried to disrupt the protest. "Some officers entered the apartment when one of us opened to door to go outside. They made no attempt to conceal their intention to use force against us," said hunger striker Vladimir Korovkin.

"The officers grabbed Vasily Kisel, a diabetic, by the legs and hair and started dragging him toward the door," Korovkin said. "He nearly passed out. The frightened cops called for an ambulance."

A dozen policemen also sealed off the apartment and discouraged supporters from entering by demanding ID and making threats. The protesters filmed the harassment.

"Police personnel did in fact exceed their authority," said Kiselyovsk's chief prosecutor, Alexander Zharikov.

After looking into the matter, Zharikov sent legal opinions to this effect to Lieutenant General Anatoly Vinogradov, the regional police chief, and to Kiselyovsk Mayor Sergei Lavrentyev.

"They're exacerbating the situation when these issues could be solved peacefully," Zharikov said.

As fate would have it, during the third week of the hunger strike, Lavrentyev was given an award for defending human rights by the regional human rights ombudsman, Nikolai Volkov.

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