Article by: Iryna Stelmakh
It is easier to beat all the separatists and free Donbas than to prove that you have been at war and deserve the status of a combat participant. This is the sad joke shared by soldiers who have returned from the ATO zone today. For defending Ukraine from the separatists they, like World War II and Afghanistan veterans, merit free holidays in sanatoria, medicine and free public transportation, they are to be the first in line for housing and land lots, 0% loans for private construction, and a 75% discount on public utility service bills.
“We have been unable to receive status since September. Even though the law says 30 days. The documents are currently at battalion level, everything is ready in the department. We send them to the higher-ups who block the entire thing,” says deputy commander of a regiment within the Donbas battalion, Taras Kostanchuk.
The situation in the Donbas battalion today is typical for many soldiers, says volunteer Iryna Yakunina. The woman has been aiding the soldiers to receive the status they deserve for several months. However, first she has to gather photo and video evidence, medical certificates, eyewitness accounts, and prove to the Defense Ministry that this or that man has been on the front line. Then comes months of waiting, or court.
“The Defense Ministry knows this, but they are keeping quiet. Nobody wants this. The situation is the same as it was with the Chernobyl law, when the status and subsidies were given to fake victims. Everything is blocked at every level: division, battalion and higher. Our government does not benefit from having ATO participants, as they have to be paid. The country has no money. So what do they do? They put it off or give nothing at all,” she says.
Bureaucracy and ‘military tourists’
The mechanism of gaining ATO participant status is quite complex. It is not the fighters who have to apply to the Ministry of Defense, but the commanders of their military units, or leaders of other departments. They have to do it within a month of the soldier in question having completed missions in the ATO zone. First the documents are sent to the appropriate committee within the Ministry, then they go to the inter-institutional committee, then for approval by the State Service for Veteran and ATO Participants Issues. According to the inter-institutional committee, over 3,500 people have already received ATO participant status, however, the number of applicants constitutes about 50,000.
However, it is not just bureaucratic tedium, which is characteristic of the entire state apparatus, but ‘military tourists’ – people who go to the ATO zone on purpose (mostly to peaceful districts, and not the front line), to bring back subsidies or even the possibility of avoiding lustration; fighters and volunteers add. A recent example of this was deputy Minister for Regional Development, Dmytro Isayenko. He went to the Russian border for some time, where he participated in constructing ‘the Wall,’ after which he decided he deserved military status. Several MP’s forced him to sign a refusal of combatant status right in session of the Verkhovna Rada hall.
A special law mandating that only those who deserve combatant status, including volunteers, would receive it, would help avoid such situations. A bill is already in the works. However, it still has to be examined by the profiling committee.