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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thousands Rally for Soviet Benefits in Kiev

KIEV -- Thousands of veterans, pensioners and Chernobyl victims rallied outside Ukraine's parliament on Tuesday, demanding the cash-strapped government leave in place Soviet-era benefits that many say they cannot live without.

Carrying red Soviet flags and posters with slogans such as "Veterans, everyone defend your rights" and "Take away your own benefits, return our health," thousands of elderly people protested the 2004 draft budget, which would replace free municipal transport and special medical and social privileges with fixed payments in an effort to cut expenditures.

Organizers said they expected up to 15,000 protesters, but police estimated the size of the crowd at 4,000.

The Communist Party and the Ukrainian Chernobyl Union, an advocacy group representing victims of the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster, convened the rally to protest the planned cuts and to demand the government pay long overdue benefits to thousands of war veterans and Chernobyl victims.

Protesters said support to Chernobyl victims could be reduced by 20 percent.

"They'll deprive us of the miserly sum they give us, and some won't even get that," said Vasiliy Kosyanenko, who worked on the dangerous cleanup operation after a reactor at the plant exploded, sending a radioactive cloud over large areas of Ukraine and neighboring countries.

"If [the accident] had happened in another country, we'd be heroes, but here the government ignores us," he said.

Ukraine's government has been unable to maintain the generous Soviet-era benefits accorded to some 3.3 million people, including 1.5 million children, affected by the accident.

Protesters at the demonstration also rallied to support ratification of an agreement signed this month by the presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus to establish a common economic zone envisaging the free movement of goods, capital and labor, as well as common tariffs and customs.

The issue has exposed deep divisions in Ukraine, which is trying to balance boosting trade with Russia and other former Soviet neighbors against efforts to draw closer to the West. Western diplomats have also warned the pact could set back Ukraine's bid to join the World Trade Organization.

"It's no return to the Soviet Union, it'll be easier to trade ... we have to compete with Europe," said Petro Ivanov, 71.

Parliament must ratify the agreement before it comes into force, but no vote has been scheduled.