About 2,000 veterans of the Chernobyl cleanup operation rallied Sunday in Ukraine's capital to protest cuts in the benefits and pensions they receive to compensate them for their exposure to radiation.
Days before the 25th anniversary of the explosion at the nuclear power plant that sent clouds of radiation over much of Europe, protesters in Kiev expressed their anger at the government over drastically reduced pensions and the rising cost of health care, with more cutbacks to come.
Leonid Lytvynenko, 48, said his monthly pension has been cut from 1,700 hryvna ($212) to 1,200 hryvna ($150) since January, and he spends more than half of it buying medicine that until this year was free. He gave no details about his illness, saying only that it stemmed from his work in Chernobyl in 1986.
"I was 23 then and performed my national duty," said Lytvynenko, a small, thin man whose face is deeply wrinkled. "Now I am disabled and my country has thrown me overboard."
He was among about 600,000 so-called "liquidators" who were sent from all over the Soviet Union to the Chernobyl plant after the April 26, 1986, explosion and fire.
In 1991, Soviet authorities offered a generous package of benefits to Chernobyl cleanup workers. But over time the benefits have been cut back, and requirements to prove a connection between Chernobyl service and illness have become tougher.
The current government under President Viktor Yanukovych said it has been forced to make further cuts this year because of the lingering effects of the global financial crisis, which hit Ukraine hard. Yanukovych said recently that fulfilling the past promises to Chernobyl workers was "beyond the government's strength."