For the first time, a high-level United States government delegation will travel to Moscow to press Russian officials to pay pensions to refugees and immigrants from Russia, and its predecessor, the Soviet Union, now living in the U.S., The Jewish Week has learned. News of the upcoming negotiations — which will be held in the Russian capital next week between a delegation from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) and representatives of the Ministry of Health and Social Development of the Russian Federation — comes as New York elected officials are increasing the pressure on Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union to pay pensions to tens of thousands of refugees and immigrants living here who spent most or all of their working lives in the FSU.
Refugees and immigrants living in Israel, Germany, Canada and Australia would also be eligible to receive pensions, which could push the number receiving pensions well into the hundreds of thousands.
A grass-roots organization known as New Immigrants for the State of Israel and Social Justice (ANISISJ) has registered an estimated 10,000 ex-Soviet émigrés who are demanding that Russia and other Soviet successor states pay their pensions in full, and a growing number of New York elected officials have endorsed the call for Russia, Ukraine and other Soviet republics to provide their former citizens with years of back pension payments they have not received.They include Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan and Brooklyn), former Rep. Major Owens, New York City Comptroller William Thompson, State Assemblyman William Colton (D-Brooklyn) and City Councilman Lewis Fidler (D-Brooklyn).
In addition, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) is asking the Helsinki Commission, of which she is a member, to look into the Russian pension issue. The commission focuses on human rights, military, social and economic issues related to Eastern Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union.
Ironically, leaders of the Russian Jewish community have been slower than American-born elected officials to get on the pro-pension bandwagon, in part because of concerns about the role of the initiator of the campaign, ANISISJ founder and president Yakov Gutman.
Gutman is widely regarded as a self-promoting freelance activist who does not want to share credit for the success of the initiative with other community leaders. Yet in recent weeks, leaders of veterans groups and Holocaust survivors’ organizations who formerly held back from the pension initiative have expressed support for it. And the Russian Jewish community’s lone elected representative, New York State Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, said he is “grateful to Yakov Gutman for his efforts to organize the community on this issue.” To understand why the pension issue increasingly resonates with members of the Russian community, consider that Russian émigré retirees, most of whom arrived here in their 50s, 60s and 70s and have little or no formal work record in the U.S., receive no pensions from employers in the U.S. and only modest monthly SSI payments of just over $600 a month for individuals and $900 for married couples.
Pensioners in Russia receive on average about $100 a month, and while that may seem at first glance like a small amount, Gutman said that “such payments would make a big difference in the quality of life of elderly Russians in Brooklyn, most of whom have to pay rents every month that equal or exceed what they get from SSI.” Gutman noted that many of these people live in grinding poverty, barely managing to stay afloat on a combination of SSI and food stamps, and sometimes by working “off the books” for less than the minimum wage even though they are well past the age of retirement.
Until now, Russia, Ukraine and other FSU republics have largely brushed off requests from former residents for pension payments, although Russia is currently paying pensions to a relatively small number of people who left the country for permanent residency abroad after the collapse of the Soviet Union and maintained their Russian citizenship.Yet according to Nadler, whose advocacy over the past few years on behalf of ex-Soviet refugees and immigrants on the pension issue over the past year led the State Department and SSA to successfully petition the Russian government for a meeting on the issue, “I am encouraged that the Russians are finally coming to the table and addressing this important issue.”
Ukraine, the former Soviet republic from which the largest number of FSU émigrés in New York originates, has argued that it is not required to pay pensions to former Soviet citizens who lived and worked in Ukraine before the breakup of the Soviet Union since it is not the legal successor government to the USSR.Said Nadler: “The Ukrainians aren’t ready, but the belief in the State Department and SSA is that there is a much better chance to reach an agreement on pensions with Russia. In any case, Ukraine and the other republics often follow the lead of Russia.” Efforts to reach SSA for comment were unsuccessful. Nadler is hopeful that the negotiators in Moscow will settle upon an agreement that would require Russia to pay pensions to former or current Soviet or Russian citizens now living permanently in the U.S. in exchange for the U.S. paying pensions to former or current U.S. citizens residing permanently in Russia.Asked about statements by high-ranking Russian officials that Russia will not agree to pay pensions to émigrés who left its territory before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Nadler responded, “We will have a better understanding of the Russian position after the Moscow meeting, but in any case, we are just initiating discussions on this issue.
“In my opinion,” Nadler continued, “if the pension issue is not solved, it will build up and become major irritant to U.S.-Russian relations. It is in no one’s interests to let this irritant grow.” Nadler’s advocacy for pension payments has received backing from New York City Comptroller Thompson, who in recent days has sent letters to the Russian and Ukrainian ambassadors in Washington and the Russian consul general in New York, advocating that residents of former Soviet republics living in New York should receive their pensions. “These former citizens of the Soviet Union have not received the pensions they earned during years of work,” Thompson wrote in his letter to the Russian officials. “I am hopeful that your government will recognize the validity of these claims and provide former citizens now living abroad with the pension payments they have earned.”
Asked why Thompson decided to involve himself in the issue, his spokesperson, Ebony Meeks, told The Jewish Week, “Comptroller Thompson is the chief investment officer of pension funds in New York City, so he knows the field very well. After we were contacted about this issue, our office of research determined that [Russia and other former Soviet republics] were indeed committing a violation of international rules by refusing to make pension payments.”Vladimir Khlebnikov, spokesman for Russian Consul General Sergei Garmonin, who has met with Gutman several times to discuss the pension issue, said, “This issue is not part of our competency but will be decided by the Russian Pension Fund [a Russian government agency under the aegis of the Ministry of Health and Social Development]. I would simply point out that the Russian Federation is one of the few countries that pays pensions to people living abroad.”
According to Steve Krishtul, an attorney who is assisting Gutman in his effort to press the Russians to pay pensions to émigrés, “Although Russia’s existing pension laws do address their right to receive pensions, in reality discriminatory limitations of these laws effectively preclude a vast majority of émigrés from receiving payments.”
Krishtul noted that Russia’s own Constitutional Court ruled in 1998 that Russia’s pension law passed in 1993 does not pass the scrutiny of constitutional review and directed the responsible agencies to use its decision as a guideline for adoption of new regulations.But he added, “Unfortunately, to date there has been no change. Russian immigrants who left Russia prior to reaching pension age cannot still realize their right to receive pensions because Russia’s social security bodies refuse to pay them.”For his part, Yakov Gutman, who will be in Moscow during the June 4-6 meetings, said he is less optimistic than Nadler that the meeting may lead to a breakthrough.“This is not something we can afford to leave to the bureaucrats,” he said. “Both the Russian Jewish and American Jewish communities have to stay actively involved and insist that Russia give us satisfaction on this issue.”